Let us review – briskly – where we came from on VPK, where we are today, and where we need to be.
We Floridians are entitled to take pride in being only one of three states offering prekindergarten for all 4 year olds — Georgia and Oklahoma being the others. Many other states are moving toward the same. We passed pre-K back in 2002 because it was about all our children. You can only build a movement when it is about all our children -- the beautiful Sabrina and Sofia Lopez Cantera, the five beautiful Lawrence children, everybody’s beautiful child. All children are beautiful, and all children need the right blend of education and health and love.
It wouldn’t have happened without the people — a very clear majority of whom voted for it. It wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas who raised the money to put it on the ballot. It wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of then Senate President Toni Jennings who legislatively managed the passage of the School Readiness Act of 1999, and then, as lieutenant governor alongside Governor Bush, pushed hard for quality VPK standards. It wouldn’t have happened without first-rate legislative leadership from Dudley Goodlette and others. It wouldn’t happen today without expertise and an emphasis on collaboration leadership from the Office of Early Learning, led by Rodney MacKinnon, and our state’s 30 Early Learning Coalitions.
Back in 2002, the people of Florida voted overwhelmingly for this — and still are clearly “voting” for this. This year there are 175,000 4-year-olds in the program. That’s 77 percent of all eligible children.
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Many, many of Florida’s more than 6,000 voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) providers — public, private and faith-based — lead wonderful child-centered programs focused on outcomes. But should not every VPK program be superb? Should not every teacher be well prepared? Do not the children of Florida deserve quality settings, quality programs, quality learning?
What the people passed, in the words of the constitutional amendment, provided for programs that would be “voluntary, high quality, free and delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” This is where we too often fall short; this is where we need to do better — in some instances, much better.
In that spirit, let me note five key questions about the future of prekindergarten in our state:
▪ When will we invest fully and appropriately in real quality (which requires real investment)? In Year One of VPK, we allotted $2,500 for early learning for each child. A decade later, your bills and my own are higher, but today we allot only $2,437 for each VPK child, or less than when we started. That is nowhere near where we should be.
▪ In a high-quality program would not every child be assessed — cognitively, socially, emotionally — upon entering the program? That would help teachers and parents do the very best by each child. Then we would do an assessment at the end of the “school year,” and see what progress has been made, and where work still needs to be done. We have made progress toward this, but we still do not have an assessment system that (1) can adequately measure how ready children are to succeed, and (2) assess program quality.
▪ Is not learning a continuum — from birth onward? The research tells us that 90 percent of brain growth occurs by age 5. Building upon that knowledge, should not the state’s funded child care programs be high quality? Should not every VPK program be brain-stimulating? Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Public Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons would tell you . . . a wise principal would tell you . . . a good teacher would tell you this: The most prudent path to “school reform” begins by bringing children to kindergarten and first grade in superb shape — cognitively, socially, emotionally, behaviorally, developmentally. Children with momentum in kindergarten and first grade will, chances are, have momentum all their lives. Children who do not have momentum then may never have such.
▪ Is a three-hour class enough? The unanimous recommendation of the then-called UPK Advisory Council, on which I served and which was led by Lt. Gov. Jennings, called for parents having a choice of 3 and 6 hours. We are leaders in school choice in Florida; should not VPK be a matter of this choice, too?
▪ The state now spends a total of $392 million on this program. It is the people’s money, so are not the people entitled to a program that measures real outcomes and real progress? What research we have shows a child in Florida’s VPK is much more likely to do well in kindergarten. We need more research so the people of Florida know what really works and what really does not.
I close noting where all our emphasis must begin — that is, by understanding that nothing is more important in helping a child succeed than a caring, knowledgeable, nurturing parent. All parents are entitled to the support of the people of Florida. A first-rate VPK program makes sense for families and for Florida.
Today let us celebrate how far we have come. Let us resolve to do what still needs to be done.
And may God bless all our children, and all of us.
David Lawrence Jr. is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. He has also been a leader in The Children's Trust and other initiatives involving early learning.