Hunter Witherby is a lucky 4-year-old.
The Sebastian boy has a mom and dad committed to his education. So much so his mother, Gracie, has undertaken a months-long search for the right pre-kindergarten experience for Hunter.
“I do investigate myself,” said Witherby, noting some of the best preschools in the county are tough to get into unless you are a younger sibling of a child who attended. “I’m hearing good things about some places and bad things about some others.”
But finding accurate, independent reviews of state-funded preschools is difficult. That's a problem not only for parents, but for regional, state-funded coalitions that pay preschools to provide quality pre-kindergarten education to families who want it. The coalitions' boards are appointed by the governor.
The other day Witherby showed me what appeared to be an up-to-date list of more than 30 voluntary pre-kindergartens in Indian River County funded by the Early Learning Coalition of Indian River, Martin and Okeechobee Counties. But while the list on the coalition's website might be up to date, readiness scores assigned each pre-kindergarten on the list were several years old. Metrics originally used by the state to assess pre-kindergartens were questioned by experts on early learning so much the state stopped publishing school scores in 2016.
The lack of clear data makes decisions for parents such as Witherby more difficult. Worse, lack of data makes it nearly impossible to determine whether the almost $384 million Florida spent on pre-K education in 2015 was a good investment. Officials in Tallahassee have only begun discussing how to better measure the outcomes.
State Rep. Erin Grall, elected in November to represent Indian River and part of St. Lucie County, hopes to change that. She wants to come up with better data to measure preschools and kindergarten readiness. She wants to improve the system, too.
Why? Her experience as a mom and nonprofit volunteer made it clear children who cannot read at grade level by third grade face an almost insurmountable academic task. As part of the Indian River County nonprofit Kindergarten Readiness Collaborative, Grall helped set goals to lead the county toward what has been called its Moonshot Moment: 90 percent of children reading at grade level by third grade by 2018. That number was about 53 percent in 2016, according to the Florida Standards Assessment.
“It’s too early to tell what the first bill will look like,” she told me last month, noting the state faces many challenges.
Targeting early education to help students is essential based on research showing the importance of learning through age 5, the collaborative found.
Florida faces many problems associated with early learning. Among them, the state meets only three of 10 benchmarks for voluntary pre-kindergarten programs set by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The institute is highly regarded by advocates for the importance of stimulating brains early in life.
Among the 10 benchmarks Florida fails to meet: requiring bachelor’s degrees and pre-kindergarten specialization for teachers, certifications for assistant teachers, 15 hours of training per teacher per year, ratios of one student per 10 children or better for 3- and 4-year-olds and offering students vision and hearing tests.
What’s more, state funding, which pays for only about three hours a day of pre-kindergarten, ranks next to last among states: about $2,304 for each child in the program. That compares that to about $10,210 per student spent in Florida in grades K-12, according to the Rutgers report.
In Florida, the collaborative reported, the percentages of Indian River County students deemed ready for kindergarten were consistent with statewide numbers, from 78 percent to 92 percent, depending on tests not all early learning experts seem to agree are the perfect measurement tools.
The more I look at this issue, critically important to the future of the state and its children, the more I realize Grall has her hands full in getting the Legislature’s attention to get down to the details. It's an issue that should have bipartisan support, but funding is sure to be a challenge.
While some families have the means to send their children to any pre-kindergarten, about 55 percent of Indian River County children are born into poverty. About 20 percent of local mothers don’t have high school diplomas; about 10 percent of children are born to teen moms. Only about half of local children are born to married couples.
“These children’s ability to succeed is severely compromised at birth,” the collaborative said.
If state and local governments, and nonprofits such as United Way, are going to help these children, pre-kindergartens must meet best-practice benchmarks and investors must know their dollars are being spent wisely. That has to be part of Grall’s mission.
Then, when children born recently are ready for school, they'll all have improved odds at getting a better pre-kindergarten education.
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at email@example.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman.