In Florida, we’ve seen our education system flourish because we put into place greater accountability and choice. That came about because we had the courage as a state to reform a system, creating one that sets standards high, measures for success, and is brave enough to share the results.
As a parent, I want the best opportunities for my daughters. That’s why my four year old is enrolled in prekindergarten. I can’t imagine waiting until after she starts kindergarten to learn whether or not she was well-prepared for school.
A delay in providing critical information parents need on how Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (VPK) is serving the child is a blind spot in education policy.
The time has come to get that information.
VPK Accountability is Broken
Florida voters in 2002 changed the state constitution to guarantee every 4-year-old “a high quality prekindergarten learning opportunity in the form of an early childhood development and education program which shall be voluntary, high quality, free, and delivered according to professionally accepted standards.”
Today, Florida taxpayers invest $400 million a year to serve about 175,000 children through this commitment to VPK. The state has been investing in VPK for 15 years (nearly $6 billion of taxpayer funds spent) and yet we have no data that shows the impact of the program on learning.
It’s because Florida understands every child deserves to start kindergarten safe, happy, healthy, and ready to learn. Unfortunately, the results are mixed at best when it comes to the “ready to learn” piece. Florida’s assessment of kindergarten readiness – given to students a month into the 2020-2021 kindergarten school year – shows that more than 40% are not.
Why do we check to see if kindergarten students are ready to start school only after a summer break and one month into the school year? Why don’t we do the assessment in prekindergarten when we can make helpful adjustments to a child’s learning plan?
Maybe there ought to be a law.
Time is Running Out
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Erin Grall (CS/CS/HB 419) and state Sen. Gayle Harrell (PCS/SB1282) to align the state’s early learning programs and K-12 education systems will result in more efficient investment of taxpayer funds, informed parent choice, and children who are better prepared for school when the bell rings on Day 1 of kindergarten.
We’re down to the “bills are dying” part of the legislative session, where there are more bills to consider than there is time on the clock. This is one issue that has gone through the process before. This year, the House version sponsored by Rep. Grall is on third reading and ready for passage.
For Florida’s Future.
VPK will play a key role in the future success of our state. So it’s important that we get it right. Empowering parents with information about VPK and establishing accountability standards is a winning parent- and child-focused approach that can deliver in big ways for our state’s efforts to strengthen our economy, develop our workforce, and enhance our quality of life.
There is power in providing this kind of information to parents as education consumers looking to make the best choice for their children. Policymakers and budget writers should embrace a regular comprehensive source of performance outcomes for the state’s diverse array of early learning providers – private child care, public schools, and/or non-public schools.
Wesley Barnett is a board member of The Children’s Movement of Florida and a lifelong citizen of Polk County.