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Lawmakers reviewing early learning programs


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TALLAHASSEE — The House Education Committee is ready to roll out a bill that would upgrade the health, safety and teaching standards of Florida’s early learning programs.

Children’s advocates are mostly satisfied with changes they requested to serve more children, while providers are seeking a few more tweaks.

“We’ve spoken to just about everybody in the state of Florida,” said Committee Chairwoman Maureen O’Toole, R-Lady Lake. “There isn’t anybody left.”

As the panel held a last workshop on the bill, O’Toole said it was part of a multiyear effort to improve the quality of Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten and school-readiness programs.

Last year, O’Toole spearheaded the passage of a major early learning bill after several failed attempts. It moved the Office of Early Learning to the Florida Department of Education and increased accountability for early learning program spending.

That set the stage for this year, with O’Toole focused on establishing standards for a wide range of providers. Florida has just under 10,000 school-readiness programs and about 6,400 public or private voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.

The committee spent months on the bill, learning that the health and safety standards for each provider type vary widely, as does the degree to which minimum levels are inspected and enforced. The panel learned that the process for sanctioning providers makes eliminating the bad actors slow and difficult.

So this year’s bill would license private providers in the school-readiness program, which provides subsidized child care to the children of low-income working Floridians. In cases where faith-based or other providers are exempt from licensing, they must agree to comply with the state’s child care licensing standards and submit to inspections by the Department of Children and Families or a local licensing agency.

The bill would require providers to notify parents of health and safety violations and to prominently post citations that result in disciplinary action on the premises. Providers with Class I violations — actions that could hurt or kill a child — within the previous year could be ineligible for the school-readiness program unless certain requirements are met.

Former Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, executive director of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, said providers support most of the intent of the bill, but they’re seeking “a couple of massages,” including one on notifying parents about health and safety violations.

“We generally support the concept of notification,” Bogdanoff said. “The good providers will do what they’re supposed to do, but how do you verify that notice was given and what is the penalty for non-compliance? We will continue to work to improve this section.”

Bogdanoff called for a database to track early learning teachers. Usually the culpable party in a Class 1 violation is a teacher, she said, but the provider gets the violation and the teacher gets fired or moves on to another school.

Children’s advocates thanked O’Toole for accepting changes they’d recommended, such as expanding early learning participation to the youngest children with disabilities.

Most important, said Brittany Birken, executive director of the Florida Children’s Council, were changes to the Rilya Wilson Act, which was passed after a 4-year-old disappeared from foster care in 2000.

The act mandates that children from 3 years old to school age who are at risk of abuse and neglect be enrolled in an early education or day care program. The change that Birken and others sought in this year’s bill would extend that to include children younger than 3.

O’Toole said she would examine rules and regulations governing the early learning programs, some of which hadn’t been looked at for decades.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was happy to see Gov. Rick Scott’s budget recommendations for early learning, but wasn’t sure how much the House would allocate for the programs. “There’s been a tremendous amount of data and science that has shown that investing in early childhood education pays huge dividends to your state,” Weatherford said.

Scott’s recommendations include a one-time $30 million boost to the school readiness programs, which served 223,000 children last year. Florida has a waiting list for the school readiness programs, which haven’t had a significant funding increase in a decade. Best estimates are that 60,000 to 70,000 children are waiting for a place.

Scott is calling for an increase in per-pupil spending for voluntary pre-kindergarten, in which more than 174,000 children are enrolled. The he state spends $2,383 per child; Scott has asked for an increase to $2,483 per child, or $929,000 overall. The 2012 national average was $3,841 according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

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