Monday, December 13, 2004

What About the Children?

In the 2002 election, Florida voters added an amendment to the state constitution mandating universal pre-K education. Supporters – like me – thought it would be a good way to get an early start to a good education for all students regardless of whether or not they went to into the public schools. Well, if I had known that the state legislature would come up with the enabling legislation that they did to get the program going, I would never have voted for it.

Before the ink dries on a law creating a statewide pre-kindergarten program, it will bear the hallmark of a Republican-led Legislature that would rather tighten public purse strings than regulate private and religious schools.

The voter-mandated pre-K program, the centerpiece of this week’s special lawmaking session, likely won’t meet the number of instruction hours or qualified teachers called for by early-childhood development advocates. The proposal, expected to pass with few changes, doesn’t bar religious discrimination, either.

The loose regulations benefit private and religious schools and day-care centers, and they expose the roots of the battle over pre-K: money, and who gets it once the state begins to pay for the $300 million to $400 million voluntary program for more than 150,000 4-year-olds in the fall.

Skeptical of education bureaucracies, Republican lawmakers have long favored private schools. They created the nation’s largest private school voucher program, which helped turn the classroom into an extension of the marketplace or even, critics say, a house of worship.


Fred Menachem, who helped run the amendment campaign on behalf of its creator, outgoing Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, says he’s prepared to sue over the pre-K legislation. He points out that the petition signed by voters to put the measure on the ballot said the program would have “appropriate staffing ratios, teacher qualifications and professional development” standards.

“I will find a team of lawyers to take the case,” he said. “This is not about business. This is not about politics.” [Miami Herald]

That means that while the grown-ups fight over this – the case will be in court for years – the kids get the short end of the stick. Again.