Early learning, an area in which Florida was considered a trailblazer, is now at a crossroads, with a national study finding its value limited and Gov. Rick Scott rejecting a revamp bill that roiled the legislative session, opting instead for an administrative fix.
The legislation (HB 5103), which Scott vetoed on Friday, was a compromise among four bills that were fiercely disputed by pre-kindergarten providers, regulators, lawmakers and lobbyists.
The burst of new legislation followed a scalding December 2011 auditor general's report that found problems in the state's billion-dollar early learning system, including $40 million worth of fraud, much of it due to a statewide database that was far behind schedule.
Scott's veto message directed the state Office of Early Learning to implement "many of the positive provisions of this bill" by rulemaking. Those provisions include strengthening governance of the state's early learning providers, adopting certain types of assessments for whether children are learning, and tightening oversight of the state's 31 early leaning coalitions.
Much of that is already underway, said OEL director Mel Jurado, who took her job as the audit was coming out last fall. She said 25 of the auditor general's 31 findings have been resolved and the last six nearly so.
But while Scott and Jurado say they can fix the system's woes without changing the law, some say only more funding will improve the quality of the teaching and the classroom experience.
"The trend nationally is to increase enrollment without increasing funds, but Florida is really the worst example," said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
According to Barnett, Florida also has the lowest teacher qualifications in the country.
A study by the Rutgers institute, released this month, found that Florida leads the U.S. in access to early learning with 76 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in a state-run pre-kindergarten program. But Florida's spending was just $2,422 per child for the 2010-11 school year – much less than the national average of $4,141.
In overall spending, Florida ranked 35th of the 39 states with an early learning program, and met just three of 10 quality benchmarks.
Jurado said the direction Scott provided in his veto message would, if executed, improve the quality of early learning statewide. By focusing on good governance, she said, OEL can give parents, volunteers and public-private partners the confidence to invest more in the system.
The Early Learning Information System database is back on track, enabling the early learning office to match data and prevent ineligible Floridians from placing their children in state-funded pre-K while getting unemployment benefits, Jurado said. The completion of that database, for which funding was included in this year's budget, is a key step in cleaning up fraud, she said.
"We're basically operating a $1.3 billion system with 260,000 children with a paper and pencil," said Jurado.
Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, agreed that the reforms in HB 5103 should have been made by Jurado's predecessors. But he also said the provisions in Scott's veto message alone won't do the job without more funding – a lot more.
"[Jurado] needs to wrestle with Scott for a higher appropriation," Miller said. "I mean, he came through with a billion-dollar increase for K-12 [education funding]. There's no substitute for coughing up the dough for K-12, and there's no substitute for coughing up the dough for pre-kindergarten.
"Nothing the governor has ordered will improve quality," he said.
Jurado said she'd met with the governor's office Friday about the NIEER study and how to improve Florida's early education outcomes.
The agency is looking at ways to improve on the assessments, she said.
"What are some of the easy moves, what are some of the mid-moves? What are some of the things we're going to need legislative support or movement on? What are some of the things we just need pure dollars on?" Jurado said.
The agency has been working with lawmakers, including Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, sponsor of HB 5103 and, with Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, one of the architects of its the compromise bill.
Coley said OEL is providing documentation as it solves the problems outlined in the auditor general's report.
"The issues many lawmakers had regarding fraud are being addressed," Coley said. "Many of the components of the legislation are being set in motion by the Office of Early Learning."
Critics are still troubled by what they call the "warehousing" of children with caregivers who keep them safe but teach them little.
"The most disadvantaged children are locked into low-quality programs," said Barnett, at Rutgers. "It's just a waste of money. You won't see any results."