Originally published by RedefinED.org
In the early 1990s, it was all the rage for expecting parents to play hours of classical music before childbirth. When articles first appeared in scholarly journals, the melodies of Mozart and Beethoven became popular to reportedly boost the IQ levels of children through exposure in utero.
Today, classical music for parents remains a hot seller, though more recent research has largely debunked the “Mozart effect.” For example, Scientific American Magazine reported
that a 1999 meta-analysis on 16 studies related to the use of classical music found that the IQ boost provided was only one and a half IQ points and limited to a paper-folding task.
Fast forward to 2002, when Florida led the way for another trend aimed at giving young children an intellectual jumpstart – this one based upon widespread public support and much less-controversial research.
Voters passed a ballot initiative, with 58.6 percent in favor, to establish “an early childhood development and education program which should be voluntary, high-quality, free and delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” This language to offer free universal preschool was enshrined in the Florida Constitution under Article IX, Section I. In a nutshell, the voters said this: parental empowerment at the onset of each child’s education is essential to later academic success.
In January 2005, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law creating the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education (VPK) Program. The overarching goal: to build a solid foundation for academic success by preparing Florida four-year olds for kindergarten and life in general. Scholarships were made available on a free, opt-in basis for the Florida parents of a child who turns four by September 1 of that (or subsequent) school years. The law required 540 instructional hours for the school-year program, which typically translates into a three-hour day, at a school of the parent’s choice.
During the program’s first school year, in 2005-06, VPK scholarships were set at $2,500 per child. Approximately 107,000 children were enrolled; this represented slightly less than half the eligible population of four-year olds in the state. During the current school year, the program is expected to serve 153,045 students or nearly 75 percent of the eligible children, according to
July 2015 data
from the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
A 2013 report by Florida’s Office of Early Learning looked at the effectiveness of the program, and found:
- Nearly 82 percent of children completing VPK were deemed ready for kindergarten;
- Only about 53 percent of children who did not attend VPK were deemed kindergarten ready; and,
- About 66 percent of children who partially completed VPK were deemed kindergarten-ready.
Against this backdrop, restoring the per-child scholarship amount to the levels seen at the time of the Great Recession would advance the cause of school choice in the coming year. After all, the current $2,437 per-child scholarship is worth $240, or nine percent, less than the $2,677 amount set for the 2007-2008 school year, and will remain flat next school year under the budget recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott. And that does not even take into account the impact of inflation which has occurred during the past seven school years.
This makes it difficult for Catholic schools and other VPK providers to retain well qualified teachers who desire to work with four-year olds.
VPK currently serves more than 3,668 students in Florida’s Catholic schools. This accounts for 4.2 percent of the total Catholic school enrollment in grades Pre-K to 12. The 125 Catholic VPK providers have found that teachers at times “jump ship” to serve students at higher grade levels or different subjects, where funding is greater and they can earn better pay. While Catholic providers augment the salaries of VPK teachers with regular community fundraising efforts, the state per-child scholarship is the primary funding source.
The VPK Program is at a crossroad as the state celebrates its
. Every year or two, the Legislature has added new requirements to the program as policymakers have reviewed effectiveness and accountability factors.
The crossroad is this: should legislators continue to amend the program while holding funding at pre-recession levels? Or should that funding be restored, upholding not only the principle of parental empowerment but the desire for a high-quality program, which has motivated many of the recent legislative changes?
A funding increase for VPK scholarships of just a few hundred dollars per child could help secure the program’s future and protect the state’s investment for generations to come.