Pre-K's good value

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 1:59 a.m.

Educators, parents and and people who care about the state of education should take note of some new information about voluntary pre-Kindergarten programs.

The first bit of good news comes from the Florida Department of Education, which reported recently that children who participated in Florida's Pre-K program in the 2005-2006 school year scored higher on standardized tests than those children who did not.

The second item of note is found in a new report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), an Atlanta-based nonprofit group that studies educational issues in the south, an area it defines as running from Maryland to Texas.

That report, in sum, says southern states led the nation in offering state-funded pre-K programs to 3- and 4-year-olds. In 2007, 19 percent of children that age were in a state-funded pre-K program, more than double the rate in states outside the region and about a third above the national average.

Why is that important? Well, as Florida Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg told The Associated Press when Florida's results were announced, "The more time children spend in a quality VPK program, the better prepared they are for kindergarten." Blomberg added that the state must continue to advocate for greater participation "so that all Florida's children enter kindergarten ready to learn."

And so we should. Learning is a lifetime activity, and nothing sets a child on the right course to being a productive citizen than having a strong foundation.

Under the state's Pre-K program, children can receive as many as 540 hours of instruction during the school year at no charge at both public and private providers. Children can get an additional 300 hours of intensive instruction during the summer.

As with so much dealing with education in Florida, funding is an issue. The SEF report notes that the Sunshine State which created a VPK program in 2002 only after voters amended the state Constitution, and after state lawmakers were dragged kicking and screaming into developing it ranks 29th nationally in per-pupil spending among states that offer voluntary Pre-K.

Florida spends $2,625 per student, roughly $1,000 less per child than the national average. Florida also ranks 11th in per-student spending among the 15 states SEF identifies as southern.

Yet the option has proved to be popular in Florida. The state ranks No. 2 nationally in enrollment, SEF notes, with 32 percent of its 3- and 4-year-olds participating. Only Oklahoma (33 percent) has a higher percentage.

"This low per-child funding endangers the long-term promise of pre-K in Florida and helps fuel a vastly uneven quality of service throughout the state," SEF President Lynn Huntley notes in the report. Florida should beef up funding to "realize major academic and economic gains. As advocates in Florida know, quantity without quality in pre-K will have limited positive impact."

The SEF researchers wisely tout the value to a child academically of being better prepared to enter full-time school. But they also draw attention to a very important aspect of this program that affects the entire community: the economic benefits of early education.

Citing sources such as the Business Roundtable, which represents Fortune 500 companies and the Federal Reserve, SEF notes the benefits of such programs in terms of creating productive citizens. They focus on the research of James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist from the University of Chicago, who "believes that Pre-K is the single most effective and efficient investment in building human capital."

We spend a great deal of time in this state worrying about how children perform on a single test each year. It's time we start investing the funds to give the best opportunity possible to succeeding on it, and in life.

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