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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida Lawmakers Approve Bill To Strengthen VPK Programs

Credit dcJohn / Flickr/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A little more than half of students attending the state’s VPK programs are deemed ready for kindergarten.

Nearly a third of Florida’s more than 6,000 Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten providers are on probation and only about 53% of kids who attended kindergarten in 2019 were deemed ready for it. Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, believes that has to change and her proposal on early learning and VPK is now on its way to the governor's desk.

Florida’s VPK program was created in the early aughts in recognition that students need to be prepared for kindergarten and that early learning was critical to student success. The program is voluntary, and it was left to private providers to step in. Today, a little more than half of students attending the state’s providers are deemed ready for kindergarten.

“Because our readiness rates have been near 50% for the last number of years, we should all be embarrassed about the lack--the failure to address accountability," Grall told the House's Education and Employment committee earlier this month during a hearing on the bill.

Grall has been trying for three years to increase accountability in the state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program. She’s faced pushback from private providers like Brenda Dickenson with the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Dickenson says she understands the effort to improve early learning, but disagrees creating a division of early learning that would be under the oversight of the Florida Department of Education.

“The Florida Department of Education was set up to regulate public schools, not private schools. And I’m not sure that we’re in favor of the assessment because this allows the state to come in and assess the teachers who are already low-paid…they’re having to get more training, and now the state is going to send in third-party regulators to evaluate how those teachers teach," Dickenson said.

She called the bill an “over-the-top continuing regulation of the program.” Grall’s proposal would require kids be tested while they’re still in VPK—a change from the current system which tests them when they enter kindergarten. This, supporters say, is a better reflection of program quality given that kids tend to lose information during the summer when they’re out of school.

“VPK is not a jobs program for adults. It’s about making sure children who are fixing to enter kindergarten have the proper building blocks to do that. And education is about building blocks," said Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala.

Not all private providers feel the same about the bill. The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops is the largest faith-based VPK provider in the state and is backing the proposal. So are the local early learning coalitions, which keep track of local school readiness and voluntary pre-k providers.

“We’ve lacked data on teachers…we also lack sufficient data on children to provide appropriate intervention, especially for our most at-rick children," said the Florida Early Learning Coalition's Erin Smeltzer. "Additionally, if you’re a parent and you were looking for a VPK program you would have very little information and in fact, if you enrolled your child in a new provider you wouldn’t know their performance or any data on them at all until January/February of your child’s kindergarten year.”

The proposal has gotten unanimous and near-unanimous support throughout its journey in the House including during its floor hearing. A companion bill in the Senate has also gotten unanimous support in the chamber’s committees. But the bill has died in the Senate before. That was the concern ahead of Monday's floor vote in that chamber.

"Let them [the Senate] know how important this policy is because this is the third year we’ve had this policy in the House and the Senate has not gotten on board. And obviously we’re partners with them," Grall said to her colleagues.

The bill would allow the state board of education to oversee early learning coalitions. It would repeal the current kindergarten readiness test and replace it with another and, increase the learning standards to include more math and critical thinking skills. Grall's appeal was a success. The Senate approved the bill unanimously as well.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.