Florida lawmakers began a five-day special session Monday morning. On the agenda was legislation creating a pre-k program for four-year-olds and several post hurricane insurance and tax issues.
Voters mandated a "high quality" pre-k program, but the plan on the table is raising eyebrows.
Advocates for children want a six-hour pre-k day; the Legislature’s plan has three. Advocates want teachers with a bachelor degree; the Legislature’s plan calls them an aspirational goal. Ten students is an ideal class. The plan allows for 18.
State Rep. Dan Gelber says the quality voters want just isn’t there.
"Three hours a day with 17 other children in the class, they were thinking high quality. This clearly isn’t high quality. It’s not even quality at this point."
But the Miami author of the plan, Rep. Ralph Arza of Miami, defends what he calls a first step.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to always say that it’s not enough or the quality is not there. I believe that the quality is there if you look at the ratios, you look at the credentials."
And on the other side of the Capitol, Senate sponsor Lisa Carlton says lawmakers are doing the right thing.
“You would send your child to this program given that you could afford to send them anywhere? Yes, I would."
Lawmakers have taken so much heat on the 18 to one ratio they are likely to change it this week, but there is no sentiment to change on the other key elements.
Much of the pre-k plan was written to make it easy for private schools to carry the majority of the load. Jeb Bush argues the state can’t make pre-k work without private schools.
"We don’t want to lose private providers from the get go and make it impossible to implement the will of the people."
Lawmakers admit they are being overly cautious because they simply don’t know how many kids will show up next fall and what the cost will be. Lawmakers still have not explained exactly how much the pre-k program will cost, but the latest estimate is in the neighborhood of $350 million.