Florida’s Voluntary Pre-K Program Gives Parents New Options

Published October 1, 2005

One of the nation’s largest early-learning school choice initiatives kicked off August 15 when more than 90,000 four-year-olds headed to class in Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program.

Lynn Cobb, education council director for the Florida House of Representatives, said she expected that number to swell to 100,000 students by September, as School Reform News was going to press. “The response has been positive, even from skeptics,” she said. “Basically, everyone that was looking for blood in the water didn’t find any. There are a few details to work out, but so far, the reaction has been very good.”

The program–created after a 2002 constitutional amendment began requiring a “high quality,” free, universal pre-K program–is one of only eight universal pre-K choice programs in the country. Georgia started the trend in 1995, followed by Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky, New York, and California. According to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan education policy group, more than 40 states nationwide fund preschool programs, usually for at-risk children.

Florida’s program allows parents of any resident four-year-old to choose among public, private, and faith-based providers for a 540-hour school-year program or an intensive 300-hour summer program. Other states don’t always cover higher-income families. The Florida legislature drafted the law to include nonpublic providers after public school districts reported they lacked the space and facilities to accommodate the expected number of students.

Early-Learning Coalitions Cooperate

Private providers are compensated about $2,500 per student per year, based on payment structures established by the Florida Department of Education. The funds flow through 32 local Early Learning Coalitions, which then electronically transfer payments to providers, capturing about 5 percent or $125 per student for administrative costs that include recruiting providers, certifying and registering students, and monitoring compliance with the law, said Paula Bender, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

With the help of local public schools, Bender’s coalition has recruited and trained 800 providers and held face-to-face interviews with more than 19,000 four-year-olds since June 4 in South Florida alone.

The $2,500 pays for about three hours of daily instruction, after which many parents choose wrap-around daycare services. In order to ensure that low-income families can participate, providers are prohibited from requiring them to purchase those extra services.

“Right now we are just working to get children enrolled,” Bender said, “but as soon as we’re done, we’ll focus on site visits, ensuring the school is using the curriculum it said it uses, that they are focusing on literacy, and that their student-teacher ratio is what it should be.”

Program Designed from Scratch

Florida lawmakers studied Georgia’s 10-year-old universal pre-K program while creating their own, but they didn’t copy it, Cobb said.

“We really had to create our own program, because we could not phase in the standards required by the constitutional mandate and because we are limited by class size restrictions,” she explained.

Among those standards are a 1:10 teacher-student ratio and instructor credentialing that includes extra literacy training. Though the program doesn’t give participants a specific curriculum to follow, it does require a focus on literacy and phonetics preparation.

Saves Money, Changes Lives

“Every dollar we spend on early learning saves $17 in the long run,” said Bender, citing the Perry Preschool Project, a study conducted in the 1960s finding that early education leads to higher earnings and less risk of criminal activity, “but we don’t focus on just the dollars saved.” She pointed out that early education students’ greater productivity and lower crime rates in adulthood are good for all.

To test the pre-K initiative’s effectiveness, all kindergarteners entering public school are screened, and providers who fail to prepare students adequately will be penalized.

“Results of a Georgia State University study of third graders who had participated in their pre-K program showed that students performed equally well, regardless of whether their provider was public or private and the type of [college] degree held by the provider,” Cobb said. “We’re focusing on what will come out of the program, instead of what goes into it.”

Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.