TALLAHASSEE - The House Education Committee is ready to roll out a bill that would upgrade the health, safety and teaching standards of Florida's early learning programs.
Children's advocates are mostly satisfied with changes they requested to serve more children, while providers are seeking a few more tweaks.
"We've spoken to just about everybody in the state of Florida," said committee Chairwoman Maureen O'Toole, R-Lady Lake. "There isn't anybody left."
As the panel held a last workshop on the bill this week, O'Toole said it was part of a multi-year effort to improve the quality of Florida's voluntary pre-kindergarten and school-readiness programs. O'Toole's committee will take up the bill Thursday.
Last year, O'Toole spearheaded the passage of a major early learning bill (HB 7165) after several failed attempts. It moved the state Office of Early Learning to the Department of Education and increased accountability for the spending by early learning programs.
That set the stage for this year, with O'Toole focused on establishing standards for a wide range of providers. Florida has just under 10,000 school-readiness programs and about 6,400 voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, including public and private schools and licensed and unlicensed providers.
The committee spent months on the bill, learning that the health and safety standards for each provider type vary widely, as does the degree to which minimum levels are inspected and enforced. The panel also learned that the process for sanctioning providers makes eliminating the bad actors slow and difficult.
So this year's bill would license private providers in the school-readiness program, which provides subsidized child care to the children of low-income working Floridians. In cases where faith-based or other providers are exempt from licensing, they must agree to comply with the state's child-care licensing standards and submit to inspections by the Department of Children and Families or a local licensing agency.
The bill would also require providers to notify parents of health and safety violations and to post citations that result in disciplinary action prominently on the premises. Providers with Class I violations - actions that could hurt or even kill a child, such as leaving someone in a hot school bus for hours - within the previous year could be ineligible for the school-readiness program unless certain requirements are met.
Former Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, executive director of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, said providers support most of the intent of the bill, but they're seeking "a couple of massages" - including one on notifying parents about health and safety violations.
"We generally support the concept of notification," Bogdanoff said. "The good providers will do what they're supposed to do, but how do you verify that notice was given and what is the penalty for non-compliance? We will continue to work to improve this section."
Bogdanoff, who represents about 1,200 members, called for a database to track early-learning teachers. Usually the culpable party in a Class 1 violation is a teacher, she said, but the provider gets the violation and the teacher gets fired or moves on to another school.
"The provider gets left holding the bag," said Bogdanoff, who wants the state to give private providers data about teachers who are disciplined, as it does with doctors and lawyers. "If we can put drugs in a database, we can put teachers in a database."
Children's advocates thanked O'Toole for accepting changes they'd recommended, such as expanding early-learning participation to the youngest children with disabilities.
Most important, said Brittany Birken, executive director of the Florida Children's Council, were changes to the Rilya Wilson Act, which was passed after a 4-year-old disappeared from foster care in 2000.
The act mandates that children from 3 years old to school age who are at risk of abuse and neglect be enrolled in an early-education or day-care program. The change that Birken and others sought in this year's bill would extend that to include children younger than 3.
"That was an important loophole that existed in law, and we appreciate you closing it," Birken told the panel.
O'Toole also said she would be examining rules and regulations governing the early-learning programs, some of which hadn't been re-examined for decades.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said this week he was happy to see Gov. Rick Scott's budget recommendations for early learning, but wasn't sure how much the House would allocate for the programs.
"There's been a tremendous amount of data and science that has shown that investing in early childhood education pays huge dividends to your state," Weatherford said. "Particularly in the last 10 years, the data that has come back has been pretty overwhelming."
Scott's recommendations include a one-time $30 million boost to the school readiness programs, which served 223,000 children last year. Florida has long had a waiting list for the school readiness programs, which haven't had a significant funding increase in a decade. Best estimates are that 60,000 to 70,000 children are waiting for a place.
Scott is also calling for an increase in per-pupil spending for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, in which more than 174,000 children are enrolled. Currently the state spends $2,383 per child; Scott has asked for an increase to $2,483 per child, or $929,000 overall. The national average was $3,841 in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Weatherford called early learning a way to give Florida children an equal opportunity.