Florida Association of School Administrators — Orlando

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Here is the text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, on Oct. 16, 2017, before the Florida Association of School Administrators in Orlando.

What you will hear today will not be Mr. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” What I have to say will be neither as lofty nor as brief as what President Lincoln said in just 272 words and about two minutes on that day in November 1863. Nor will it be anywhere near as long as the two-hour oration that same day by the then celebrated, now mostly forgotten featured speaker Edward Everett.

My mission, given to me by Juhan Mixon was this: Tell the audience, he said, how VPK came to be, how it’s doing now, and what you hope it to be. That, then, is my assignment and what I will do.

I start with history because we need to know where we came from. History is front and center in my own life and work – and why I read at least a book a week, most often biographies and history. If history bores you – and I hope it doesn’t – get over it. We cannot get to the best future for pre-K in Florida – or, in fact, for America — without understanding the past as it connects with the present, and as prologue for the future.

Here, then, is how prekindergarten for 4 year olds came to be in Florida:

Back in 1996 when I was publisher of the Miami Herald, the then governor, Lawton Chiles, an especially good and caring public servant, asked me to chair a task force on “school readiness.” Though I was the father of five, I had never heard of the topic. Didn’t know that 85 percent of brain growth occurs by the age of 3. Didn’t know that perhaps a third of all children entering kindergarten are way behind, and most of them will get further behind. Didn’t know that if a hundred children leave first grade without really knowing how to read, then 88 of those will be in much the same shape after fourth grade.

But, eagerly and quickly, I learned. Our work on the Governor’s Commission on Education led to legislation creating what we now call Early Learning Coalitions. It also led to my deciding to “retire” after 35 years as reporter-editor-publisher to devote most of my energy to focusing on the earliest years for children, giving them the best chance to succeed in school and in life. The very future of America was at stake, I believed then. Today I am even more convinced.

Even before departing newspapering at the beginning of 1999, I spent real time visiting early childhood centers of excellence in several cities in our own country. In January I headed to France to see the Western world’s best example of high-quality preschool for all. It was that word “all” that is most meaningful here; my reading of history leads me to believe that children need a “movement,” and I define a “movement” as about everyone. Thus, for example, the Civil Rights Movement was about all of us and an American sense of equity. The same goes for the Feminist Movement, and so forth and so on. What I witnessed in France was an inspiring example of excellence for all.

Upon my return from overseas, I could see two paths to get to pre-K availability for all 4 year olds in Florida – and neither easy. In 1999, I approached key legislators in the House and Senate, and in both parties. While my ultimate goal was pre-K for all, I was willing to start by asking them to sponsor bills to provide pre-K in the most at-risk school districts. But the governor and the Florida Legislature had no appetite for such, and that was that. I had struck out.

The other possible path would be a constitutional amendment.

It would be a heavy lift. To get it on the ballot would take almost a half-million signatures from throughout Florida. (Volunteers standing outside grocery stores wouldn’t make it happen; we would have to hire and pay professional petition gatherers.) We also would need to raise enough money to make the case to the voters.

I went to Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade’s mayor. Then thinking about running for the United States Senate, he saw pre-K as a strong statewide issue. Extrapolating from the experience in his own family – son Christopher was in a privately funded program — the mayor knew that high-quality pre-K could make a difference for tens of thousands of Florida families. The mayor agreed to raise the dollars to get it onto the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Passage would require 50 percent of the voters (plus one).

Mayor Penelas raised $1.8 million, of which $1.4 million was spent on the petition drive (or about $2 apiece for each of the 722,000 signatures collected). The other $400,000 went to the campaign itself.

On the Nov. 5, 2002 ballot, voters read these 64 words in Constitutional Amendment 8:

“Every four-year-old child in Florida shall be offered a high-quality prekindergarten learning opportunity by the state no later than the 2005 school year. This voluntary early childhood development and education program shall be established according to high-quality standards and shall be free for all Florida four-year-olds without taking away funds used for existing education, health and development programs.”

Please note that the words “high quality” were used twice.

What came to be called VPK – that is, voluntary prekindergarten – would never have happened if we had focused only on some children, no matter how deserving. I helped raise money and made speeches, but the mayor raised most of the money and made most of the speeches. The mayor and I traveled the state spreading the word. The mission was not to convert everyone to a “Yes” vote, but rather to convince when we could, and neutralize when we could not. We did both, and there was never an organized campaign against the amendment. We emphasized that the program would be voluntary – no parent would have to participate. It would be free to parents, with the money coming from the state’s general-revenue dollars. And any provider – public, private, faith-based – would be able to join the program upon meeting certain statewide standards.

Florida became one of only three states – the others being Georgia and Oklahoma – to offer free pre-K for all 4 year olds. This year 169,203 4 year olds are enrolled in 6,342 VPK providers — 66 percent in private providers; 19 percent in public schools, and 15 percent in faith-based centers.) The research already shows VPK is making a difference in children being prepared to succeed in school.

To get ready for the fall 2005 rollout of VPK, Governor Bush asked his widely admired lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, to lead a 20-member task force to recommend standards that would be “high quality” and produce real results for children. The unanimous recommendation of that task force, on which I served, was for parents to be able to choose either a 3- or 6-hour program; it also mandated, within a few years, that the lead teacher would have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood. The legislature ended up deciding on only a three-hour program, and made the second recommendation “aspirational.” That, effectively, meant it would never have to happen.

While work clearly remains to make pre-K what the voters intended, the good news is that it’s in the state constitution. We have a long way to go before every program and every provider can be honorably described as brain-stimulating “high quality.” The $396 million Florida will spend on the program this year doesn’t come close to ensuring a high-quality program for every child. Floridians deserve to have their tax dollars spent on certifiably high-quality programs that bring real results for children.

In that spirit, I share with you what is encouraging, and where we must do better. First, a half-dozen encouraging items:

One: The participation rate of 4 year olds has increased over the years – from 49 percent in 2005-2006 to 77 percent now.

Two: VPK standards have been developed by the Office of Learning within the Florida Department of Education and approved by the State Board of Education, creating some alignment with the K-12 system. But the State Board of Education needs to be significantly more involved than it is now. High-quality pre-K should be a central ingredient in children getting off to a splendid start in formal school.

Three: The early legislative perception that VPK was subsidized babysitting for parents who could afford to pay is mostly gone. The influx of new members with preschoolers has boosted the VPK profile. Yet while many legislators care about VPK, funding has not followed that fondness.

Four: Discussions about accountability and outcomes have been part of the conversation since the beginning, but the conversations have become more real and more urgent.

Five: Until not too long ago VPK was just for 4 year olds. Today if parents of a young 4 year old feel their child is not ready for VPK, they can wait and enroll the child at the age of 5.

Six: Some superb providers have taken early learning to a much higher level in Florida and have been instrumental in getting us closer to making VPK part of the educational continuum.

Meanwhile, here are a half-dozen areas where real improvement is necessary.:

One: Many VPK teachers are paid just above minimum wage and have few or no benefits. In contrast, public school teachers receive health, sick and vacation leave, as they should. Until we consider pre-K to be an integral part of the educational continuum we will never ensure that children are school-ready.

Two: The base student allocation of less than $2,500 for a school year simply could not possibly support a true high-quality program. A higher base student allocation could help increase accountability and outcomes by supporting:

(a) Higher wages to attract teachers with advanced credentials, and more dollars to pay for ongoing professional development for teachers.

(b) Early interventions that are child specific and address not only the academics, but also the social-emotional needs of children.

(c) Additional opportunities for parental involvement and skill-building through school-sponsored activities. Nothing is more important to a child’s future than a caring, knowledgeable, nurturing, loving parent.

Three: Almost anyone can become a provider after taking a few basic courses. We clearly should have better selection criteria and we should reward providers for excellence.

Four: A three-hour day program does not allow enough of a quality experience for many children. We need to give parents an option of at least six hours of learn-and-play programming.

Five: Legislators of wisdom have good and basic questions, such as: What are we getting for the money? How did child A do in VPK? Did child A do better than child B in VPK? If so, why? These are fair questions, but even after all these years we can’t seem to answer them. We need to adopt outcome and provider accountability measures (imperfect as they may be) that are evidence-based and do not label children or unjustly penalize providers.

Six: We require a pre- and post-assessment for VPK, administered by the provider themselves, but we don’t do anything for the children who are identified by that post-assessment as still having deficits when they complete the VPK program. They simply move on to kindergarten, where they will typically start behind. But I see good news on the horizon: The governor, the Senate President and the House Speaker have appointed a 17-member Early Grade Success Committee to come up with a plan, by this December 1, to make recommendations as to child assessments with “a focus on developmentally appropriate learning gains.” High-quality assessments – cognitive, social, emotional – would give teachers and parents a splendid tool to give each children the best possible chance to succeed. This does not mean we are suggesting pushing standardized testing down into the preschool years. No baby FCATs are under development, I promise you. Instead, we are exploring the best ways for teachers to gather structured data as to how children are doing in their early childhood programs and use these observations to inform individualized care and instruction, and measure development over time. This approach has proven valuable in other states to help teachers and families better meet children’s developmental needs in the crucial early years. (In full disclosure, I chair that task force, ably facilitated by Dr. Abigail Thorman of the University of Florida. The vice chair is Rep. Erin Grall of Vero Beach, one of the Legislature’s most encouraging members on the topic of early learning.)

Meanwhile, business leaders increasingly are pushing for quality early childhood programs. So are some political leaders. The Florida Council of 100, the Florida Chamber of Commerce with its Early Learning Business Alliance, and the Foundation for Florida’s Future all are significantly engaged in pushing for higher quality and fuller funding. The Council of 100 has put together a significant plan that could make a great difference in (a) more children succeeding, and (b) more effective use of the people’s money – that is, your money and my own. The Council of 100 vision begins with this: “All students will arrive ready for grade 4.” How, then, to move briskly toward that?

First, two facts as the backdrop of what I am about to say:

One: There is no research evidence that class size is a significant dynamic beyond grade 3. Indeed, what is most important is how ready children are to learn and to pay attention in class. (I looked at my seventh grade yearbook, and counted the number of children – 37 in all. We were, in my memory, self-disciplined, attentive and eager to learn – and we all did learn.)

Two: For all the education progress Florida has made, we still have 40 percent of fourth graders who cannot read at minimally proficient levels. That is so obviously unacceptable.

Florida has spent literally billions in meeting the class-size constitutional amendment passed in 2002. What if we spent a significant chunk of that money somewhat differently?

The Council of 100 dug deep for months on all this, and came away with this thought, in the words of its chair, Pat Geraghty: “While class size has a proven impact on grades pre-K-3, research clearly indicates that at least $2 billion of taxpayer money for the later years would be better spent on things like attracting and retaining top-notch teachers and improving early learning.” Specifically, the Council of 100 suggested:

1: Extend high-quality VPK by a year, to age 3.

2: Provide VPK extended-day and summer programs for means-tested, at-risk children.

3: Reduce class sizes even further in the earliest, most crucial years – that is, pre-K through grade 3.

4: Invest more in teachers – in high-quality training, in literacy coaches, in teacher preparation programs, and in incentive pay for the best teachers.

Now we need the leadership – elected and academic (plus parents and voters) to give this approach a fair chance. What we are doing now is working nowhere near well enough.

“We don’t have the money,” I hear so often. “We can’t afford it,” I am told. Please do not let anyone tell you we don’t have the money. In the words of David Brooks, the conservative columnist of The New York Times: “The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated.”

We spend in this state less than $2,500 for a pre-K slot – and $50,000 to incarcerate a juvenile. Now, how smart is that?

Decades ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of our greatest Presidents, told us: “We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for their future.” His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, told us: “If we had but one generation of properly born, trained, educated and healthy children, a thousand other problems of government would vanish.”

What more do we need to know to do right by children? Each of us – you and me — needs to be a leader in helping children – all children – succeed. It is practical work; it is also God’s work.

Thank you for caring, and thank you for doing. May God bless all our children, and all of us.