Catholic Schools May Opt Out of State’s Free Pre-K Program

Tuesday was the first day for parents and pre-kindergarten providers to sign up for the state’s free pre-k program, but the 250 Catholic pre-ks across Florida say they might not participate.

The Catholics don’t think the state’s pre-k program will do a good enough job for Florida’s four-year-olds unless changes are made.

Patti Neal’s children all go to a Catholic school.

“We do have one in pre-k and she’s getting an excellent education. She goes the full day and it’s preparing her well for kindergarten, but primarily I think it’s the values that is important to us, to be in a place that shares the same values that we have."

But parents enrolling their four-year-olds in the state’s new pre-k program may not have the option of choosing a Catholic school. The Florida Catholic Conference says it may take a pass on participating. The Catholics wanted a six-hour school day instead of a three-hour program.

They say the state’s $2,500 per student falls more than $1,000 short of what Catholic schools spend to educate each four-year-old.

Plus, spokesman Larry Keough says participating pre-ks can pick and choose who they let in, for example, they don’t have to let in poor kids.

“Don’t have to enroll a child if he or she has a disability, at risk, has a developmental delay, a language problem, and then the bill does allow for providers to discriminate based on religion.

Gov. Jeb Bush was surprised and annoyed at the Catholics’ announcement.

“I wish they would have talked to us beforehand. That’s the first step normally, so rather than comment first I’m going to talk to them, show it how it should be done.”

The trouble is, the Catholic Conference did express its concerns before the pre-k bill passed, along with many other groups, but lawmakers went with what they knew they could pass. The price may be having to get along without 250 catholic pre-ks.

State lawmakers say they are open to making some changes to the new pre-k program when the spring legislative session starts next month. The Catholic conference says it would like to be part of the program if significant changes are made.