Early Childhood Successes and Failures in 2014 Florida Legislative Session

Overall early childhood policies in Florida saw some modest successes though a few priorities were not achieved. Early learning funding increased slightly in Florida this year, though the percentage increase to the early learning budget was below the increases realized by the K-12 and higher education budgets.

Thanks to Representatives Eric Fresen and Marlene O’Toole, and Senator Bill Galvano, the 2014-15 budget contains proviso language and $10.5 million to create a performance-based pilot that incentivizes higher quality in the state's child care subsidy program and paves the way for increasing the quality of early learning programs statewide.  In comments on the House floor, Rep. Fresen noted that this Early Learning Performance Funding pilot represents the first time performance funding for early learning will match the expectations established in the K-12 system.

Perhaps most significant, SB 1666, a bill to improve the child welfare system passed this session, which requires, as part of a comprehensive reform, disabilities screening for young children identified at risk for abuse and neglect. The bill focuses on child safety (including child abuse prevention), system transparency and accountability, and workforce development.

And, after more than seven years of advocacy, the legislature finally passed a bill HB 225 (Booster Seats) increasing the age for children required to be secured in a child safety device (car seat or booster seat) from age four to age five. 

Legislative Setbacks

Unfortunately two early childhood legislative priorities did not survive the Florida Legislative Session, which ended May 2nd. An early learning health and safety bill died on the last day of the session; and bills which would have lifted the 5-year ban on enrollment in KidCare (the state’s CHIP) for children of lawfully residing immigrants died in committees.

In the final hours of the 2014 Session, the Senate considered HB 7069, the early learning and childcare regulation bill. Developed by the House Education Committee under the leadership of Chair Marlene O’Toole and with significant input from child advocates, this legislation would have 1) required unlicensed providers to substantially comply with health and safety standards and submit to inspections; 2) denied program eligibility to providers with serious violations; and 3) required staff to be at least 18 years old, hold a high school diploma and be trained in CPR and first aid. The Senate added several unrelated amendments, which then required approval from the House. Unfortunately, the session ended before the House could vote on the bill as amended, and so it died. It is anticipated that the health and safety issues in the bill will be revisited in next year's legislative session.

Similarly, legislation (HB 7/SB 282) related to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (Florida KidsCare) was not adopted this session, These bills would have allowed the children of legal immigrants, who have lived in the United States for less than five years but otherwise meet the program qualifications (about 20,000 children statewide), to be eligible for the KidCare program. . The bills stalled in committees, largely due to the inaccurate fiscal note provided by the Agency for Health Care Administration. With support from Representative Jose Felix Diaz, the House bill sponsor, the estimated cost of the bill was reduced from $28 million to $14 million but not in time for the bill to get through the committee process. Advocates will continue to pursue this legislation next year.

Some Early Learning Funding Increases

$10.5 million in new funding allocated for a School Readiness quality pilot program
$3 million for additional School Readiness slots
$8.8 million for a $54 per student increase in Voluntary PreKindergarten program funding (from $2,383 to $2,437 per child per year)
$2.5 million increase for HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters)
$2.0 million in new funds for early learning professional development
$2.0 million in new funds for the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council's Help Me Grow Network
$600,000 in new funds for newborn screening and hearing testing

Some Child Welfare Funding Highlights

$7 million in recurring funds for Healthy Families in home prevention services
$21 million for hiring new child protective investigators and sheriffs’ investigators
$10 million to the state's Community Based Care agencies
$4.45 million to increase safety in Child Protective Investigations for families experiencing domestic violence
$8.9 million in increased funding to the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) program, so that all children who need a guardian will have access to one.

-Jessica Scher, Public Policy Director
United Way of Miami-Dade
(June 13, 2014)