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Tallahassee Democrat: Early learning works

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Our Opinion: Early learning works

In all the debate over education, one fact stands undisputed: Children who go off to their first year of school unprepared are likely to struggle throughout their school careers and life, always lagging behind those who got a proper start.

But how do we ensure that every child gets that boost? It would be wonderful if all children had parents who read to them, got them the proper screening for hearing, vision and developmental issues, and sent them off to kindergarten with the tools they need to learn. Alas, that’s not reality. There are children at-risk, children in poverty, children whose parents can’t read, children who are abused or neglected, and children
of teen parents ill-equipped to nurture a growing mind.

In fact, all children benefit from a well-run early learning program.

That’s why, in 1999, Florida created a school-readiness system and why, in 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

In the 2010-11 appropriation year, Florida spent $1,041,142,793 on school readiness and VPK programs, with more than 70 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds enrolled in VPK.

But all is not well with the system.

In December, the auditor general issued a report saying the early learning office and 10 local coalitions paid subsidies to people who were not eligible. That was all the opening that critics needed, and bills now in the Legislature take dead aim at early learning, while advocates of the programs shout a warning.

Today in the Capitol Courtyard, representatives from a wide range of organizations — from Florida TaxWatch and the United Way of Florida to numerous children’s advocacy groups and David Lawrence Jr., chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida — will unite in opposition to parts of two bills (HB 5103 and HB 7055) that they say would hurt or even dismantle the state’s early learning system.

They warn that the bills could turn early learning into mere baby-sitting by eliminating the standards for private providers, ending automatic screening, and limiting the ability of local early learning coalitions to decide what is best for their children.

Surely, some fixes are needed. It’s hard to imagine a system anywhere that could not use some improvement. But there is no reason to start again from square one. Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, told the News Service of Florida this month that “a lot of people seem to be ignoring … that the auditor general concluded that the governance structure is appropriate.”

The coalition that will gather today at the Capitol is throwing its support behind SB 1974, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip David Simmons. That bill would institute new educational standards while not tearing down a system that, by and large, works.

We know that young children in their first five years need more than day care. They need the stimulation that helps a young brain grow and the preparation that will give them a head start toward success in academics and life.

The problems in the early learning programs are small compared with the damage that bad legislation could wreak. The Legislature should hold off on any action until it is certain that it will not be hurting Florida’s children.

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