It was a legislative session the Tampa Bay Times called the “least productive in two decades at least, if you count the number of bills passed.
“Lawmakers planned to spend 2018 on education reform and hurricane preparation and had directions to tackle opioids, wildfires and sexual harassment. All of those issues took a backseat to the unforeseen gun debate.”
Yet sliding in under the radar was a bill that had its beginnings a decade or more ago in Indian River County preschools, in the county’s administration building and at its United Way Center.
Gov. Rick Scott’s signature on House Bill 1091 continued a two-year effort by first-term Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, focusing on the thing she’s most known for in her home district: advocating for quality early learning.
“This is about more than ‘drool and diapers,’ ” she told me Thursday, quoting verbiage she heard from lawmakers with far less understanding or passion for the issue.
It’s about providing quality education for preschoolers.
It’s about ensuring $1.1 billion of state money that helps educate younger at-risk children and older children enrolled in voluntary prekindergarten programs is spent as effectively as possible.
It’s a rare issue uniting liberals and conservatives.
Grall saw it firsthand as a mom and nonprofit volunteer working in a county whose education leadership has made it a priority to help children read at grade level by third grade. Failing to do so puts them at a huge risk for societal problems when they grow up and can’t read effectively.
As Grall’s experience with the county’s Kindergarten Readiness Collaborative, Moonshot Moment and United Way has shown, in some places only 60 percent of children are prepared for kindergarten.
Part of the problem is inconsistency with how preschools chart student success.
In 2017, her first legislative session, Grall set out to reach a consensus on the issue's importance. She got the state to create — and became vice chair of — the Committee for Early Grade Success. (The committee chairman was David Lawrence, who also is chair of the Children's Movement of Florida.)
The committee had a plethora of budget-challenging recommendations in a tight financial year. Knowing it wouldn't all pass, Grall was successful at getting her legislative peers to lay building blocks of the plan.
It requires the state Office of Early Learning this year to create an assessment measuring preschools’ quality of teacher-child interactions, including emotional and behavioral support, as well as engaged support for learning, classroom organization and instructional support for children ages birth to 5 years.
Quality measures would include a minimum threshold. If preschools don’t meet it, they eventually could lose state funding. If they greatly exceed the standards, preschools could receive up to a 20 percent boost in funding.
At the same time, preschools would be asked to measure student achievement so the state can begin to collect data on what kinds of programs work best. Preschools that participate in the student achievement process would get an extra 5 percent funding.
By 2020, the state would create, for the first time, a common assessment tool for preschoolers consistent with the one it uses when children enter kindergarten to determine how prepared they are. Those metrics are important so educators can serve children as they progress in grade school.
Ultimately, Grall said, students in state early learning programs would get an identification number they would keep through 12th grade. This would help educators track student progress better than ever before.
“It’s not going to be used to label children and put them in a box,” she said. “It’s all being done to provide opportunities for maximum success and avoid over-testing.”
As I see it, the goal is to create an educational continuum from preschool to kindergarten and through 12th grade. If the state’s goals are aligned, more students can succeed earlier and the state can allocate education funds in a more efficient way.
As I wrote last year on a Sebastian woman’s quest to find a high-quality preschool, finding the best one at the best price is not always easy. Good data is limited.
Grall’s legislation will help fix that. It likely will have a positive, lasting effect on millions of children in the coming years.
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.