Undeniably, we didn’t really get what we voted for.
In 2002, the people of Florida overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that promised to make high-quality pre-kindergarten available and free for all 4-year-olds in the state. Those two words, “high-quality,” appear twice in the amendment.
Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) program began in 2005. Today, we are one of only four states to offer free pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds. We serve almost three-quarters of all 4-year-olds in the state, spending more than $400 million each year.
Yet we still haven’t fulfilled that promise of “high quality.” Yes, there are some great programs, many of the highest quality. But if you are spending the people’s money — our money — every program must be high quality because we know that only that sort of quality brings real results for children.
And we are not yet getting the results we should.
Florida’s “kindergarten readiness rate” stands at a paltry 53 percent. That means almost 90,000 children are already behind when they enter our K-12 system.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is aware and concerned. So is Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran. And The Children’s Movement of Florida has said, for years now, that access to high-quality early learning leads to better outcomes for children and a more prosperous future for our state.
The research tells us that young children’s brains are built through back-and-forth interactions. A high-quality preschool program’s first mission is not the mastery of letters and numbers, but rather begins with learning to listen, to communicate, to ask questions, to manage emotions, to cooperate, to hold a pencil. Those are the skills children need to be ready for school and for life.
A genuine high-quality VPK program would have standards that are developmentally appropriate and measured in a way that incentivizes the best teaching practices. Today, Florida’s preschool classrooms are not measured by how teachers interact with students and guide their learning, but instead by an assessment of what they know, administered months after children have left the program.
We have an opportunity this legislative session to make a change. House Bill 1013, filed by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, and Senate Bill 1688, by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, would require the Florida Department of Education to develop uniform standards of quality. They call for measuring programs based on the effectiveness of their teacher-child interactions and the learning gains children make during the school year. Programs that demonstrate high quality would be rewarded with extra funding.
This legislation also would provide parents timely information about the quality of VPK providers and about their child’s development, giving them the best possible chance to make the best choices for their children.
Moreover, fully integrating early-learning programs under Florida’s Department of Education, also would lead to streamlined policies that serve children before kindergarten and through to reading proficiency by grade 3.
Making sure every child has the best possible chance to succeed is a matter of giving children the start on skills that they will need to succeed in school and in life.
This is all within our grasp to do. It should have been done years ago. It needs to be done now.
David Lawrence Jr. is the chair and Madeleine Thakur the chief of staff of The Children’s Movement of Florida