Education

Escambia budget hearings see a boost for early learning

Photo credit: www.SeniorLiving.Org

Escambia County Commissioners wrapped multiple days of budget hearings this week, and the result includes a bit of good news for local nonprofits, including one that focuses on early learning.

Part of the Commissioners budget hearings are taken up with “outside agency requests” — requests for money from the general fund by nonprofits that work in the community.

The tentative list of outside agency funding from the Escambia County general fund for 2017. Source: Escambia County Public Information Office.

The tentative list of outside agency funding from the Escambia County general fund for 2017. Source: Escambia County Public Information Office.

Among those is the Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County, (known in the budget documents as the Escambia County School Readiness Coalition). The Coalition is the financial gatekeeper for two programs that benefit the education of young children: Voluntary Prekindergarten and School Readiness.

Both programs aim to ensure that children have access to early education services that can help boost their kindergarten readiness. Kindergarten readiness is one of the measures in the Studer Community Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard.

The Dashboard is a set of 16 metrics developed with the University of West Florida to measure the economic, educational and social well-being of the community. In the most recently available data from the Florida Office of Early Learning, 66 percent of Escambia County’s children were kindergarten ready based on the results of the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener.

School Readiness is a program that pays for subsidized childcare for children ages 0 to 13 as long as the parent works at least 20 hours a week and makes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For example, a family of four with an income of $36,375 is eligible for the program.

Funding breaks down to about $3,500 per child. Overall funding has declined for the program from federal and state sources since 2007.

The money comes to the state from the federal Child Care and Development block grant program. Three Democrats in the U.S. Congress are pushing to expand funding to that block grant program through the Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning (CARE) Act.

Local early learning coalitions use locally raised matching funds to draw down the federal dollars. Last year, commissioners gave the coalition $218,500. For 2017, the commissioners are looking to bump that up to $238,875.

During the hearings, Bruce Watson, executive director of the coalition, told commissioners that any dollars they gave would be used toward the $500,000 local match he must generate to draw the $13.8 million the county is set to receive from the program.

“I go to other sources for the rest of the match,” Watson said. “100 percent of what I ask you for goes to put a child in care. I’d need $3 million to $5 million to get to every child that’s out there” that would be eligible for the program.

“The return on investment (in early education and young children) is becoming more and more clear every day,” Watson said. “A year or two from now, our community might be ready to take the leap of faith to build a Children’s Services Council.”

CSCs are special taxing districts established by voter referendum, to fund programs for children. There are eight communities in Florida with Children’s Services Councils.

Commission Chairman Grover Robinson IV, who created his time in the Leadership Florida program with expanding his understanding of the importance of early intervention for young children, said he thought that 2018 might be the year the issue of a CSC comes to local voters.

“I tell people all the time that we don’t handle the kids when they get into the K-12 system, but I do believe it is imperative for this board to invest our education system,” Robinson said. “What we do with Bruce is our way of making that investment. I think we do contribute.”