Florida legislators are spending much of the current special session trying to hammer out a bill for universal pre-kindergarten.
According to the amendment voters passed in 2002, four-year-olds must have a "quality" pre-k program in the state by August. Now, the Legislature has to define what is a quality early education program, a task experts say is daunting but not impossible.
Groups on both sides of the aisle are uniting on this universal education bill. They're saying if we're going to do it, we need to do it right.
Scott Clemons of the Bay County Chamber says, "We have to have a quality program with accountability and teacher credentials to make it work. Without it, it's a waste of tax payers’ money."
Clemons says he's disappointed in our Legislature for shying away from really making a difference. Even a fiscally conservative group, Florida Taxwatch, is encouraging state lawmakers to spend $150 million more on universal pre-k to make it relevant.
The current bill only addresses five of the 22 vital issues Gov. Bush asked for when he vetoed legislators’ last attempt. Early education experts say there are four minimum quality aspects that will make all the difference for the program's success.
First is teacher credentials. The bill currently says teachers don't have to have any qualifications to work with our youngest children.
Lynne Eldridge of Early Education & Care, Inc. says, "Our teachers have to have the knowledge they need to help these children learn. Maybe not tomorrow, but we need to have a system in place so that by year so and so you will have this credential or this certification.”
Next is student-teacher ratios. Eldridge says there should be no more than 10 students per teacher. Another key to success is parent involvement and accountability. Local programs already have a system in place to measure student growth.
Another major issue is the length of the school day. Law makers are leaning toward a three-hour day, but experts say that only leaves one hour a day for learning.
At least two hours of each school day are used up by personal needs of children that young, things like buttoning coats going to the bathroom and tying shoes.
Republican leaders are hoping to put a workable program together with $300 million and not raise taxes. Universal pre-k supporters say it will take at least $450 million.