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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jan. 23, 201512:00 PM EST

Lawmakers revisit upgrades to early-learning programs

by: Margie Menzel

After failing last year to pass legislation upgrading the health and safety standards of Florida’s early-learning programs, lawmakers are beginning the process again for 2015.

This week, the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee unanimously passed a measure (SPB 7006) that is similar to a bill that died at the end of the 2014 legislative session.

Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, said the bill would increase compliance with child-care standards and increase training qualifications for early childhood education providers.

For instance, the bill would require child-care personnel to be at least 18 years old and have high school diplomas, unless they are not responsible for supervising children.

Currently, though experts say the quality of teachers has a profound impact on learning outcomes for preschoolers, the state’s licensing standards don’t require a high-school diploma or GED, while permitting instructors to be as young as 16.

“It is a basic first step,” said Alisa Ghazvini, executive director of Florida’s Association of Early Learning Coalitions.

The bill would also require staff to be trained in teaching and care practices appropriate for the ages and needs of the children in their care.

It would upgrade safety standards by requiring providers to conduct employment history checks before employing staff and to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

It would require providers who are cited for serious violations to notify parents and conspicuously post the citations on the premises.

Those and other provisions were included in the bill that died in the waning hours of the 2014 session. House Education Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, had spent the better part of a year on it.

But she reluctantly killed the measure when it returned from the Senate with a number of amendments she didn’t consider germane.

Now she’s back.

“Last year, if we could have passed the safety and health (upgrade), this year our focus was going to be on the quality,” O’Toole said Wednesday. “And along the way, the federal government has just come out and passed us a new assignment.”

That would be the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014, which requires basic health and safety protections for children whose care is paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The funds given to states to improve the quality of care also require more accountability in return.

“At this point, we’ve got to dissect what they’re going to do and what we can do,” O’Toole said. “And we don’t have all the answers yet. But quality is still important. It hasn’t gone away.”

Meanwhile, House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he’s ready for lawmakers to make significant progress this year.

“I’m hoping that we don’t take baby steps on this,” Fresen said. “I think we’re really in a place right now where legislatively, attention-wise, and certainly financially, where I think we can take a big leap forward.”

Last year Fresen pushed hard for an $8.8 million increase for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

For the school-readiness program, which provides subsidized child care to the children of low-income working families, last year’s budget included $10.5 million for a quality pilot program and $3 million for additional slots.

“You can pretty much rest assured that there will be an increase in the overall early-learning pie,” Fresen said of his plans for this year. But due to the federal block-grant requirements, he wasn’t yet sure how that would be distributed.

Another development in improving the quality of such programs will be next month’s rollout of Early Learning Florida, a public-private partnership led by Donald Pemberton, director of the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning.

Pemberton said the initiative springs from a report on professional development that his center conducted for the state Office of Early Learning.

The initiative offers what Pemberton called a “blended” curriculum, using both online and face-to-face instruction and continuing education.

It’s funded with $3 million from philanthropic foundations and $2 million from the Legislature.

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