Florida governor says pre-K program failing too many kids

Florida governor says pre-K program failing too many kids

(Fla.) Just two weeks removed from winning big concessions from lawmakers in spending next year for schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis identified a new service priority—early learners.

Late last week, the Florida Department of Education released new figures on the readiness of children participating in the state’s voluntary pre-K program, which showed 42 percent were not yet prepared to go on to kindergarten.

Last year, 36 percent were deemed unready.

“A 42 percent failure rate is simply not defendable and certainly not good enough for Florida’s youngest learners,” DeSantis said in a statement.

“I have asked (State Education) Commissioner Richard Corcoran to prioritize this issue and direct available funding to make enhancements,” the governor said. “Nearly three-quarters of Florida parents rely on VPK programs to lay the academic and social foundation necessary for their children to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.”

While the long-term benefits of pre-K education programs remains a subject of debate, most academic researchers would agree that high-quality early leaner services better prepare students for academic success in the early grades, which in turn, tends to benefit them going forward.

Florida has traditionally stood as a bellwether state when it comes to early leaning. In 1987, the Legislature established one of the first intervention programs aimed at low-income three and four year olds. In 2002, voters approved an initiative requiring high quality pre-kindergarten be made available on a voluntary basis to all four-year olds beginning in 2005.

During the 2018-19 school year, the voluntary pre-k program served more than 153,000 children statewide.

Despite the governor’s criticism and his directive to the department of education to make improvements, progress will likely cost much more than any “available” money not already earmarked within the education budget.

New money is also unlikely to be quickly allocated given that the governor and legislative leaders wrapped up negotiations just two weeks ago on Florida’s $91.1 billion spending plan for next year.

And DeSantis got much of what he wanted in the budget.

He asked for and received an increase in per-pupil spending of $243—more than double the increase the Legislature gave last year.

He also wanted to end the waiting list for the state’s voucher program. The final budget would open up some 18,000 new voucher scholarship slots at a cost of about $130 million per year. The grants would be available to families making 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $77,000 per year for a family of four.

About the only item that the governor didn’t fully win was his request for $422 million to increase the state’s teacher bonus program. Instead, lawmakers only approved $285 million. DeSantis said he will revisit this issue in the near future.

The new bonus money came without policy changes that the state’s teachers union had lobbied hard to get lawmakers to adopt. Teachers had hoped to convert the bonus program into across the board salary raises.

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