Education

What’s in Gov. Scott’s 2017 budget for early learning?

Circle time, including time to look at books, is an important part of the VPK classes at St. Christopher’s Children’s Center in Pensacola.

The budget proposed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Jan. 31 includes a $36.1 million boost in early education funding from this year — and could mean nearly $1 million more for Escambia County.

Scott’s 2017-2018 “Fighting for Florida’s Future” budget recommends a total of $1.1 billion for the Office of Early Learning, the division of the Florida Department of Education that oversees efforts to ensure Florida’s earliest learners are prepared for school.

“As a father and grandfather, I know firsthand how important early learning is when it comes to preparing children for future success in the classroom and beyond,” Scott said in a news release. The proposed budget is linked here.

Rodney MacKinnon, executive director of the Office of Early Learning, said the governor’s budget “reflects his understanding of the importance of early learning in terms of a child’s future. His recommendations make it clear that he wants to ensure that Florida remains a leader in early education.”

In Florida, early learning investment falls largely into two buckets — the School Readiness Program and the Voluntary PreKindergarten program. In Escambia County, the proposed budget could mean $413,199 more for VPK and up to $560,000 more funding for the School Readiness program.

Bruce Watson, executive director of the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition, applauded the governor’s efforts “to improve both the quality and quantity of care and early education we can provide to our children.”

“The improvements that his budget proposal can make in the lives of children, especially in economically disadvantaged counties such as ours, cannot be overstated,” Watson says. “The Governor’s efforts to improve the lives of our families and our children are greatly appreciated.”

School Readiness — which would see a $25 million increase statewide under Scott’s budget — is the program that provides 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.

Florida served approximately 207,000 children in the program last year and, on average, more than 37,000 children were on waiting lists statewide.

Watson says at the moment there are about 1,130 children on his School Readiness waiting list; 730 of those are under the age of 5.

For the School Readiness program for 2016-2017, Escambia County received $13,676,257.

Watson says if that $25 million increase is approved, his coalition next year could serve approximately 140 more children above the current 3,050 children they serve now on a day-to-day basis.

Florida’s VPK program is free to every 4-year-old regardless of family income. Scott’s budget includes an increase of $11.3 million for VPK, raising the per pupil allocation $50 per child in the VPK school-year program (from $2,437 to $2,487).

This year, Escambia has about 2,200 children enrolled in VPK.

Escambia County’s share of that allocation would be $5,443,490 for next school year (2017-2018). Santa Rosa County would receive $2,774,314.

For the current school year (2016-2017), Escambia got $5,030,291 for the VPK program.

In 2002, Florida voters approved a measure to mandate high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old, but the state has never funded the program for more than three hours a day of instruction. The per pupil funding allotment this year is $63 less than when VPK began in 2005, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

David Lawrence Jr. is chairman of The Children’s Movement of Florida, and was one of the driving forces behind the constitutional amendment that established the state’s VPK program.

“A foundation of high-quality early learning is simply vital, giving children the best possible chance to succeed in school and in life,” Lawrence said in a news release. “I appreciate the governor’s commitment to making important investments in early childhood education.”

“Any increase in the funding is highly encouraged and well-received,” Watson says. “Our providers desperately need all the help they can get in getting our 4-year-olds educated and ready for kindergarten.”