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  • Ryan McKinnon, Herald-Tribune

School Readiness funding formula being quietly pushed

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, is pushing for lawmakers to establish a funding formula for the state’s distribution of more than $700 million in School Readiness funding.

Correction: Certain counties are allocated to receive less in School Readiness funding in 2019-20 than they received in total in 2018-19 under Rep. Erin Grall’s plan, but that is largely due to a one-time infusion of cash into the system that took place in 2018. No county would receive less in 2019-20 than they were originally budgeted in 2018-19. An earlier version of this story stated otherwise.

Each year lawmakers allocate hundreds of millions in funding to pay for child care for low-income families, but, despite the amount of money being moved around, no one knows the rationale for how much each county receives.

Auditors have called the funding process “outdated and unexplained.” In 2017, a spokeswoman for the Office of Early Learning said “no one seems to really know” why some counties receive more than their fair share. Lawmakers from counties benefiting from the process have fought to keep the mysterious methodology in place.

Now, thanks to an infusion of more than $135 million in new federal funding, Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said this is the chance to overhaul the system.

“This is the time, when we have these dollars,” Grall said Wednesday. “Let’s not fight about the past. Let’s ask, ‘Is this better for the system?’”

A $2.4 billion increase to the Child Care and Development Fund signed into law by President Trump in 2018 led to Florida receiving the new money. That influx has created the rare opportunity to implement a formula without slashing funding from counties that were the beneficiaries from the existing system.

Grall is proposing a needs-based funding formula to determine how much each county receives in School Readiness money, which this year totals more than $700 million that will go to child care providers who care for poor children. Grall’s formula considers the number of children eligible for care, the county’s price index level and the market rate for child care.

Her idea is likely a longshot — she has not filed any legislation, and the current version of both the House and Senate budget proposals rely on the unexplained methodology. She is hoping lawmakers will consider the idea during budget conference.

If she succeeds, Sarasota and Manatee will see a major increase in their annual funding.

Sarasota’s allocation would increase from $6.2 million to $9.2 million under Grall’s proposal. The 48 percent increase is the second highest statewide behind Osceola County, where funding could increase by 90 percent. Manatee’s funding would increase from $10.4 million to $13.6 million, a 30 percent increase.

However, while the funding formula gives to some, not every county will see more money — most notably from heavily populated areas with dozens of legislators, including Dade and Pinellas counties.

Under Grall’s proposal, Miami-Dade and Monroe would would receive $19 million less than what the Senate’s appropriation bill currently proposes.

Saralyn Grass, executive director of the Association of Early Learning Coalitions, said any talk of establishing a formula means there will be winners and losers.

“The association is interested in having equity in the system,” she said. “But I think there are mixed feelings.”

Counties like Sarasota and Osceola have experienced major demographic shifts in the past 20 years, with higher populations and more families qualifying for assistance. Without a funding formula, lawmakers relied on historical levels which grew increasingly obsolete.

Sarasota Early Learning Coalition executive director Janet Kahn said if they got new money, it would go toward getting families waiting for child care services off of the wait list and increasing the amount providers are paid.

“We’ve been underfunded for so long and we’ve always had a wait list,” Kahn said. “We have to have rates that are appropriate because the difference gets passed on to families, and the providers end up taking the hit.”

Similar attempts to rectify the funding process have been made in the past. Former Sen. Greg Steube filed legislation calling for a formula last year, but it did not gain any traction, especially as lawmakers’ focus shifted to gun violence after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.

If Grall can’t get her fellow lawmakers to implement a funding formula this year before the new federal money goes out, she said it will be even harder in the future because it would require clawing back money that counties will have grown accustomed to.

“Without a significant amount of new money, then it is difficult to develop a system in which there aren’t some coalitions that would lose a lot in the formula,” Grall said. “If we just disperse the money into the system and aren’t thoughtful about it, I believe we would need hundreds of millions before we get to the point where we can have this conversation again. If there is a time, it is now.”


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