Brighter Horizon in Florida

Although Florida has long been called the Sunshine State, the outlook for children is getting a whole lot brighter these days; particularly for children at greatest risk of school failure.

In the two most recent legislative sessions, the Florida legislature passed a series of bills that position Florida’s early learning system for meaningful change, especially in the areas of assessment, accountability, and quality improvement. To understand recent success, it is important to have the historical context of challenges related to the state’s child care and pre-k policies.

For far too long, the focus of Florida’s child care subsidy program, known as the School Readiness program, was on the number of children served rather than the quality of early learning experiences. For many years the guiding statute actually required a prioritization of the number of children served over child care payment rates. When the School Readiness Act was created in 1999, the payment rates were set at the 75th percentile of the market rate. Providers that were accredited by an entity recognized in Florida were also eligible for subsidy rates up to 20% higher than the base, which incentivized quality and made accepting more children a value proposition. Over time, however, with the base rate held relatively constant, Florida slid to the near bottom in the nation on payment rates—limiting child care providers’ ability to provide a level of care much beyond basic health and safety standards.

Florida also has a long history of assessing children at kindergarten entry to determine readiness and establish a baseline. The legislature uses this measure as the accountability mechanism for the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, a constitutionally-mandated program that serves 77 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state. With high-stakes accountability in place for so many providers, there was need to think through exemptions to avoid termination of contracts for programs serving at-risk populations. So, a progress monitoring tool was developed for use during the prekindergarten year to document children’s development at the beginning and end of the prekindergarten program.

This historical backdrop is important because while the School Readiness and Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Programs positioned Florida well for both targeted and universal strategies to support early grade success, there have been variances in program requirements. These variances have limited Florida policymakers’ ability to understand fully the programs’ efficacy on children’s development. The protocols and tools for assessing the development of children in publicly funded programs were established according to funding streams. How we assess the development of young children in School Readiness was different from prekindergarten and more different still from kindergarten. What this meant practically was that when the legislature asked questions about how children were faring in our early learning programs, it was difficult to answer these questions. Further, Florida did not have a clear definition of quality for School Readiness in general law, which meant we were not able to offer assurances that children at greatest risk of school failure were able to access quality programs.

Here in our citrus-rich state, we know well the power of making lemons into lemonade. With a surge of new legislative members, there was both need and opportunity to advance system development efforts and preserve funding for early learning programming. Early learning stakeholders, system advocates, and subject-matter experts had been working together for a number of years to unify advocacy efforts. Strategic engagement and partnership with business leaders through the Florida Chamber also became a steady drum beat supporting the importance of quality early education experiences as part of the talent pipeline.

Working with a Republican freshman in the House of Representatives and a seasoned veteran in the Senate, a bill was introduced during the 2017 legislative session that created the Committee for Early Grade Success. The Committee was composed of an equal number of early learning and K-5 stakeholders, as well as subject-matter experts and representatives from the legislature. The Helios Education Foundation underwrote the costs of the Committee, so the bill did not have a public fiscal impact for the state of Florida. It was staffed by the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center—providing facilitation by experts that were not directly affected by any outcome. With support of the Alliance for Early Success, Child Trends provided additional technical support, facilitation, and national perspective on best practices. 

The Committee was convened several times during the Fall of 2017, and developed a series of recommendations to guide the development of a coordinated early childhood assessment system for publicly funded programs, birth through kindergarten entry, with the following attributes:

  • Screen children birth through age five to see what, if any, developmental concerns should be further assessed.
  • Provide practical, useful, actionable information to teachers and parents on children’s growth birth through kindergarten, helping them to provide individual care and instruction to better meet each child’s developmental and academic needs.
  • Evaluate children’s skills upon entry to kindergarten.
  • Provide an integrated system so data can efficiently follow children birth through third grade, ensuring rigorous privacy protections, to optimize children’s growth and learning.
  • Inform broader program accountability, helping to ensure Florida’s early childhood investments are working as intended to support children’s development.

The Committee put forward specific recommendations that can be phased in over time to support a coordinated child assessment system. The specific recommendations resulted in a final report that was submitted to the Governor, Speaker of the House, and Senate President.

Building on the momentum and energy generated from the Committee, the consortium of committed early learning stakeholders, system advocates, and subject-matter experts focused next on the legislative questions about School Readiness accountability. By accessing invaluable technical assistance from the Alliance, we worked to document the considerable challenges for child care providers to offer care due to Florida’s low payment rates. Early learning providers serving a significant number of children with child care subsidy were not able to meet high quality standards without becoming financially insolvent. With that understanding, came an opportunity to put forward significant legislation that establishes a minimum threshold for quality and also provides for increased payment rates for higher quality standards.

Specifically, House Bill 1091, an Act Related to Early Learning provides for: 

  • A clear definition of child care quality based on core standards and practices that must be in place to provide assurances of strong teaching practices that best support children’s development;
  • Program outcomes to validate that School Readiness is valuable as an effective early education program; and
  • The ability for local coalitions to set eligibility priorities based on the individual needs of each community.

Funds to collect baseline data were included in the legislative package. Early learning programs will be assessed on quality through measurement of effective teacher-child interactions. Those that are below the minimum threshold of quality will have a specified period of time to improve, or risk contract termination for a period of up to five years. Child care programs that exceed the minimum level of quality will be eligible for a payment differential to incentivize and pay for higher levels of quality. Additionally, the child assessment protocols for School Readiness now reflect the recommendations of the Committee for Early Grade Success and providers that implement child assessment reliably will be eligible for an additional payment differential.

This legislation successfully passed with considerable work put forward by the House bill sponsor, Representative Erin Grall and many early childhood system advocates. It received incredible bipartisan favorable support. At each committee hearing, there was commentary about the significance of the legislation and the importance of early learning. With the new federal funding award, this legislation became all the more timely and there are now funds to support key aspects of implementation. For Florida this means that substantial funding increases in School Readiness will be in alignment with improved standards and funding needed by early learning providers to ensure quality early learning programs for children.

While there is still much work ahead to support implementation, this moment is absolutely a strong example of when opportunity meets preparation!

-Brittany Olivieri Birken, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer, Florida Children's Council

(June 26, 2018)