Florida pre-K access on rise, but education quality down due to underfunding, according to report

, Fla. — Florida has the highest enrollment nationwide of 4-year-old children in a state pre-kindergarten program, but a new report warns the state may see little return on its investment because of poor quality and underfunding.

The National Institute for Early Education Research's annual report released Tuesday finds Florida tops the nation in access, with 76 percent of children enrolled. Yet state funding per child is significantly below the nationwide average, and Florida meets only three of 10 quality benchmarks.

"Unfortunately Florida has the lowest teacher qualifications in the country," said Steve Barnett, director of the research center at Rutgers University. "What makes it especially unfortunate is that Florida has the highest enrollment."

Because teacher qualifications are so low, Barnett said, "It's very unlikely you have much of an impact, and the impact is going to be especially weak for poor kids."

Stuart Greenberg, director of Florida's Office of Early Learning, said the state's universal, free program for 4-year-old children has seen positive results: Nearly 77 percent of children who had completed the program scored as "kindergarten ready" on two assessments given within the first 30 days of kindergarten last school year. By comparison, only 52.9 percent who had not participated scored at the same level on those exams.

"We are seeing students that attend VPK come in better prepared," Greenberg said.

In Florida, teachers in state pre-kindergarten programs are required to have completed coursework in early literacy and a child development associate credential, which Barnett characterized as "little more than a high school diploma."

Florida also falls behind on a number of other indicators, including establishing a ratio of one staffer per 10 children or better, and requiring vision, hearing and health screenings for students. Greenberg noted a physical exam is required prior to entering a pre-kindergarten program, but a more thorough vision or hearing screening would only occur if a teacher suspects a problem.

"I think their concerns are valid ones," said Alisa Ghazvini, a consultant for Florida's Association for Early Learning Coalitions, which helps oversee administration of the program.

Florida's spending per child enrolled in pre-kindergarten was significantly below the nationwide average: $2,422 compared to $4,141 in the 2010-11 school year, the most current figure available in the report. In overall spending, Florida ranked 35 out of 39 states with an early learning program nationwide.

In order for the state to meet the indicators NIEER recommends for a quality program, Florida would have to spend $4,464 per child, nearly double what it spends now. Florida was one of just five states to meet fewer than five of the benchmarks. Nationwide, total state funding for pre-kindergarten programs has declined by nearly $60 million, the report found.

In September, the Florida Board of Education set new standards for the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten providers, requiring that 70 percent of students test as "kindergarten ready" on two exams. That change is expected to increase the number of providers considered low performing from 798 to 2,500, out of 6,384 pre-kindergarten providers statewide.

Ghazvini said the effectiveness of that change will again come back to how much funding the state provides.

"In order for that provider to really improve the quality of their program they're going to need some supports, and it's just not clear how we're really going to help those providers improve the quality of their programs," Ghazvini said.

Also crucial, she said, is instituting an assessment when students enter a pre-kindergarten program, so that the state can better judge how effective a provider is.

The Florida Legislature has passed a bill awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature that would require pre and post-assessments for school readiness programs.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $500 million in grants to nine states through its Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge last year. The program is aimed at closing the school readiness gap, improving professional development, and aligning standards. Florida applied but was not named a winner.

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