2017-07-06 / Top News

FSW study finds investment needed to ensure all kids ‘kindergarten ready’

FLORIDA SOUTHWESTERN STATE COLLEGE
BY LARRY MILLER AND MEGAN A. JUST


MILLER MILLER In order to keep our competitive edge in today’s knowledge-based economy, the next generation must have the skills, knowledge and dispositions to create and sustain new forms of enterprise. Communities where all children enter kindergarten ready to learn are best positioned to thrive in the 21st century. Research shows that 85 percent of brain development occurs before age 3, and growth is particularly affected by the quality of children’s home and educational learning environments. This research has special implications for those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who are exposed to an estimated 30 million fewer words than their economically advantaged peers (Hart & Risley, 2003). Nobel-laureate economist James J. Heckman (2012) estimated that for “every dollar spent on high quality, birth-to-5 programs for disadvantaged children delivers a 13 percent per annum return on investment over the course of a lifetime.”


JUST JUST Florida is outspent on early childhood education by most states, and our children’s preparation reflects that. According to a report from the Florida House of Representatives, more than 38,000 of Florida’s children were not ready for kindergarten in 2014, the most recent year for which data was made available. Serving 80 percent of Florida’s 4-year-olds, VPK’s half-day program is funded at approximately $2,400 per student, ranking it third for access and 39th for spending nationally

(Barnett et al., 2015). Florida Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation based out of the University of South Florida, reports that Florida is ranked 40th out of 50 on overall child well-being, including economic, educational, health, and family and community indicators (AECF, 2016).

In our cost study, we asked what it would take to provide “high quality” early childhood education in southwest Florida, knowing that our methods could be replicated in other regions or statewide. We engaged local and national experts, including early childhood education center directors and educational leaders, to participate in a “professional judgment cost study” aimed to estimate the amount of resources needed to prepare all children for kindergarten.

Our expert panels determined that kindergarten readiness is more than just knowing your ABCs and 123s. It’s about developing the whole child, including what it takes to promote social and emotional growth so that our youth can not only read, write, and compute but work well with others, engage their curiosity and develop creative problem-solving skills — all of which are necessary for success in the 21st century workforce.

To meet this standard, our panelists recommended significantly smaller student-teacher ratios (e.g., four fewer students per teacher in classrooms serving 3-year-olds and six fewer students per teacher in classrooms serving 4-year-olds). Panelists also suggested that teacher qualifications standards should be raised to ensure “kindergarten readiness” for all children. In today’s ECE classrooms, teachers with bachelor degrees are more the exception than the rule. Our panelists recommended that all lead teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree and teaching assistants hold at least an associate’s degree; qualifications that are consistent with Headstart and Florida’s VPK recommendations, respectively.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc., our study partner, estimated the cost of resources recommended by our expert panels is $12,057 per child. It is very difficult to estimate how much we spend educating 3- and 4-year-olds in Southwest Florida. We aggregated spending from VPK (state), school readiness (state), and Headstart (federal) and USDA (federal) and estimated spending to be about $3,720 per student enrolled in a private center. Unlike other counties in Florida with a dedicated tax to support this population, our five counties do not make a significant local contribution. Parents contribute approximately $6,525 annually for children attending center-based programs. Our study estimated the funding gap between what we spend as a community and what we need to spend is about $1,812 per child. This funding gap still places a large share of the financial burden on parents, one that is lifted when a child enters kindergarten.

To fully fund ECE and to lessen the burden on parents, the state could double VPK funding per child and expand access to the program for all 3-year-olds.

Alternatively, the obligation could be met with local funding drawn from property or sales tax revenue. A state match on local tax effort could provide a joint state and local solution to the ECE funding dilemma. Our next analysis will examine these options in greater detail.

The study is available at FSW.EDU/soe/dean. ¦

— Larry Miller, Ph. D., is the dean of the School of Education at Florida SouthWestern State College and Megan A. Just, M. S. Ed., is the senior research analyst at FSW’s School of Education.

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