February 22, 2024

Editor's Page

Playing catch-up with early learning in Florida

The state spends less per child on pre-K today than it did in 2005-06.

Mark R. Howard | 1/28/2015

What science tells us about children these days is that the most important learning happens very early — about 85% of brain growth occurs by age 3. Children who don't learn early hit school age playing catch-up, and the effects tend to cascade as they age.

About 30% of children in Florida start first grade significantly behind — not ready cognitively, emotionally or socially to engage in school. Of every 100 children who leave first grade as poor readers, 88 are still be poor readers when they start fifth grade. About 40% of Florida's fourth-grade students can't read at minimum proficiency, and 46% of high school sophomores in Florida can't read at grade level. Note: That last statistic doesn't include the lowest-performing students, who have already dropped out. The indicators are much worse for children from poor families — and a quarter of all children in Florida grow up in families making less than $23,850 for a family of four.

Where this all comes home to roost is in Florida's obscene dropout and incarceration rates, and, more broadly, in the rankings showing the U.S. not keeping pace with other industrialized countries or the needs of our own military and private sectors. Fully three-fourths of 17-to-24 year olds can't enroll in the U.S. military because they can't pass the basic entry test, have been in jail or have substance abuse or physical problems. Employers, meanwhile, complain consistently — and often justifiably — about the lack of basic reading, writing and math skills among new employees.

David Lawrence Jr., now 72, was the publisher of the Miami Herald in 1996, when then-Gov. Lawton Chiles asked him to serve on a 55-member commission on education. On the commission, Lawrence chaired a task force that studied school readiness — a subject Lawrence says he knew nothing about. What Lawrence learned led him to retire from the Herald in 1999 and devote himself to championing early childhood education, care and development. His work, he says, isn't focused on poor children, or minority children, but all children. "The same principles apply to any child," he says. "The future of Florida and America is about everyone's child."

Lawrence was instrumental in the passage of a 2002 constitutional amendment that provides free, voluntary prekindergarten for all 4 year olds in Florida. He now serves as the president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and is Education and Community Leadership Scholar at the University of Miami School of Education & Human Development.

He also chairs a non-partisan statewide organization called the Children's Movement, which educates the public on the importance of investing in high-quality early-childhood care, development and education. The organization gets its voice locally through 17 volunteer regional chairs, many of whom are businesspeople [childrensmovementflorida.org].

Lawrence says a priority for the Children's Movement is making the state deliver the high-quality pre-K program it promised with the 2002 amendment.

He gives the state good marks for setting comprehensive standards for early learning but not in how it's engineered the pre-K program. It hasn't raised the requirements for lead teachers, who don't need a four-year degree, for example, and it doesn't collect and share data about pre-K programs that would let parents judge a program's effectiveness.

Some pre-K programs assess 4 year olds for academic readiness, but few assess for social and emotional maturity in a way that would better help guide pre-K instruction. Many elementary schools, meanwhile, don't coordinate their curricula and professional development efforts with neighborhood child care centers and family child care homes.

Funding isn't a surrogate for quality, says Lawrence, but the state still spends less per child in pre-K than the $2,500 it spent in 2005-06. The national average is more than $4,300; the Children's Movement wants Florida to get to $3,000 per child this year.

One promising development, Lawrence says, is a signal that the business community understands the need to invest in early childhood education. Last summer, the Florida Chamber Foundation created the Early Learning Business Alliance, a network of business leaders who will meet and plan how to advance specific goals. "They understand, and I understand, return on investment," Lawrence says, citing studies going back to the 1960s indicating that every additional dollar spent on early childhood education, care and development can produce between $7 to $17 in reductions for spending on remedial education, incarceration and the like.

Another promising development is the expansion of the Help Me Grow initiative from Hillsborough and Miami-Dade to 20 more counties. The program is a 24-hour phone referral system: Parents call 211 and are connected with a coordinator who can link them with specific local resources for a range of parenting questions and issues, from health insurance to child care and breastfeeding. The help is available in English, Spanish and Creole. Initial funding for the program came from local Children's Services councils; the Legislature provided money to expand it, with significant support from Gov. Rick Scott.

"This isn't about taking over responsibility for parenting," says Vance Aloupis, the statewide director for the Children's Movement. "It's about connecting parents — any parent — with information. It transcends every socio-economic demographic."

With the state spending only a sliver of its educational dollars on children during the years when their basic intellectual capabilities are established, Lawrence sees an intensified focus on early childhood learning as the next stage in Florida's educational reform efforts.

"There is clearly a moral imperative," he says. "But beyond that, the whole future of this state is tied up with children who need to become successful. It's devilishly difficult to catch kids up if they get behind."


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