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Op-Ed: Pre-K Legislation Suffers from Political Bait and Switch: Another Florida Fiasco?

April 12, 2004

Florida’s citizens voted overwhelmingly to mandate “high quality” pre-kindergarten education for all of the state’s four-year-olds. This first of its kind referendum would move Florida from one of the few states without a coherent preschool program to a position of national leadership. Thus, education experts around the nation are watching the evolution of Florida’s pre-kindergarten legislation as closely as political experts watched the Florida vote in the last Presidential election.

What we are seeing is reminiscent of nothing so much as a political version of “bait and switch.” Anyone who ever responded to advertising for highly touted merchandise — then visited the store only to be pitched an inferior product — knows the feeling of having “been had.” In Florida’s case, those first and foremost “being had” are the state’s citizens who voted for educational excellence and expect an effective pre-kindergarten program at a reasonable price. That’s because what voters thought they were ordering through the state referendum is not what they will get in plans currently under consideration.

None of the plans currently under consideration require fully qualified teachers, small classes, and a strong curriculum — the elements research shows produce a big bang for the buck. It may be that Florida’s legislators are “being had,” as well by those who would mislead them about what constitutes quality and why Florida needs high quality pre-kindergarten. If so, they can turn to the information collected by the state’s own advisory council headed by Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings.

The Lieutenant Governor and many others worked hard in a good faith effort to develop recommendations that would give Florida’s citizens what they have demanded. Much of that report seems to simply have been disregarded by the legislature. Consider the current House Compromise bill, for example. It has parents choose between a summer program with education standards and a pre-K program that is, by any other name, little more than daycare. Neither will be educationally effective. The summer program is too little, too late — an approach found to be ineffective 40 years ago. The pre-K program’s standards are so minimal, it would not be allowed as daycare in many other states.

The legislature still has time to come up with a better pre-kindergarten bill. The state needs to commit to fully qualified teachers — BA degrees with specialized preschool training — from the outset. If, as some have suggested, Florida cannot field enough certified teachers by 2005, the mandated start date for the program, the legislature should spell out a date certain by which it can be accomplished. While they are at it, they should also set a reasonable class size and teacher-student ratio, and eliminate the summer program. Otherwise, Florida’s kids will end up with a program they don’t deserve — and one Florida’s citizens shouldn’t buy — while the nation watches another Florida Fiasco.

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
Director, National Institute for Early Education Research

Dr. Barnett’s research has focused on the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development. He is a professor of education economics and public policy at Rutgers University.