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Children Could Be Florida Budget Winners

The Florida Senate

Thanks to a budget surplus and an election year, Florida's children could gain protection, education, developmental screening and other services during the upcoming legislative session.

Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget includes an additional $7 million for Healthy Families Florida, a program that reduces child abuse and neglect, and $3.6 million for Early Steps, which screens the youngest children for disabilities and delays, the better to catch them at the earliest and most correctable.

And after a decade of stalled funding, Scott called for an additional $59 million for early education, including $100 per voluntary pre-kindergarten student and $30 million for school readiness.

"We were shocked - in a very pleasant way," said Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, which advocates for early education, among other issues.

Even before rolling out the details of his budget last week, Scott had announced nearly $40 million in new money for child protection - just under $32 million to the Department of Children and Families and $8 million to the six Florida counties whose sheriffs' offices perform those services themselves.

And Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, followed up Scott's announcement by proposing to expand the Florida Guardian ad Litem program, which represents abused and neglected children in dependency court proceedings.

But the increases - if lawmakers approve them - would mostly go to restore earlier cuts.

For instance, the new positions at DCF - 400 child protective investigators and 26 quality assurance positions - follow reductions by former Secretary David Wilkins that eliminated all 72 of the state's quality assurance jobs for oversight of child maltreatment cases.

And the additional $7 million that Scott wants for Healthy Families Florida follows a cut of $10 million in 2010: a 36 percent reduction that jettisoned the program completely in 12 counties and forced drastic cuts in the 55 remaining counties. The program claims a 98 percent success rate at a cost of $1,671 per child.

In other cases, if new dollars come, they would follow long periods of stagnant funds and spiraling wait lists.

Florida's early education programs, for instance, have long been criticized for their low funding, which hasn't kept pace with K-12 and higher education in the state budget. And while Scott is calling for an additional $100 per VPK student, that's still not up to earlier levels and compares poorly to most other states.

The additional $30 million Scott wants for school readiness, meanwhile, would serve about 6,500 of the 60,000 to 70,000 children estimated to be on the waiting list. But the dollars Scott is proposing are one-time funds.

Former Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Ft. Lauderdale is looking at the bright side. As executive director of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, an association of 1,200 private early learning providers, she is focused on the House Education Committee's efforts to upgrade provider standards for health and safety.

"The most important thing is that we are on the radar," Bogdanoff said.

And Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, praised Scott's proposal.

"As a proponent of maximizing parental choice in education, I think we have a great model in Florida's early education system," Fresen wrote in an email. "Yet in order to assure that choice is coupled with quality, we have to provide the resources to those who serve our children. Early education done correctly is so much more than child care or babysitting. It is critical to a child's emotional and neurological development. The investment will only be worth it if we use the money we allocate wisely."

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