You and I live in a state where almost 30 percent of third-graders in public school cannot read at even minimally proficient levels. And if that doesn't scare you, wait until you get to the 10th grade and you’ll find that more than 60 percent of children in public school in Florida cannot read at grade level – 55 percent in Palm Beach, 61 percent in Broward, 63 percent in Miami-Dade and 56 percent in Monroe.
The research tells us so clearly that if we have 100 children who are poor readers at the end of first grade, by the end of fourth grade 88 of the 100 are still poor readers. It’s very hard to catch kids up. The answer, of course, is to make wise investments in the critical early learning years. With this in mind, we launched The Children’s Movement of Florida just seven months ago with a mission to “make children the No. 1 priority in Florida.” A state that can find money for prisons and roads and sports stadiums can certainly do better by its children.
One example: Florida is one of just three states in the country offering a voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) experience to all 4-year-olds. The sad story is that, while constitutionally mandated, the program has frequently been underfunded and, in too many cases, mediocre. Our children deserve better – frequently much better. The Children’s Movement has identified key policies that would make Florida’s pre-K program truly “high-quality.” But today we are fighting for something much more basic.
With the inevitable loss of the Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI), a question has emerged in Tallahassee as to where should VPK and "school readiness" programs be housed. The two agencies that have been identified as potential homes are the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF). So, here are my thoughts.
I admire the people of DCF and Secretary David Wilkins. But I also just chaired a blue-ribbon panel looking into the lessons of the horrific death of a little girl named “Nubia” and know that DCF already has more than enough over which to say “grace.”
My instincts tell me that the best home for both VPK and "school readiness" is the DOE. These are early-learning programs and their most appropriate home is a place that cares about learning full-time (all the while respecting private and faith-based providers just as fully as public school providers).
“School readiness” programs (most particularly subsidized child care) and VPK need to be together. They need to be connected because they are connected. It must be about quality because only real quality leads to genuinely good outcomes for children.
In recent times in the Senate Budget Committee, two proposed amendments were intended to be split between DCF and DOE. An outcry from Early Learning Coalitions, VPK providers and the more than 200,000 Children’s Movement of Florida supporters led to the withdrawal of those amendments. It was a small victory for Florida’s children but an example of how, if we join together, we have the wherewithal to make a real difference in the lives of our children.
Today, we struggle to keep two programs together. But our vision must be so much larger.
We can no longer afford to be a state that can find $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile but can’t find even $3,000 for each prekindergarten child. The very future of our children and of our state depend on much wiser decision-making.
David Lawrence Jr. is the retired publisher of The Miami Herald. He now chairs The Children's Movement of Florida and is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.