Pre-Kindergarten Woes in the Florida Legislature

A controversial bill to enact a free pre-kindergarten program for all Florida four-year-olds finally passed the state House Wednesday. It now heads to the Senate for a vote with just two days left in the legislative session, but critics say the plan doesn't provide the quality voters demanded.

The pre-kindergarten program crafted by the House requires one teacher per 18 children, specific instruction on reading, early math skills and a three-hour class day.

Rep. Gus Barreiro says it's everything voters wanted when they put free pre-k in the state Constitution.

“Next year at this time all four-year-olds in every household will have the opportunity to take part in a quality pre-k program,” says Barreiro.

But there's a big dispute over what quality means. Critics say the state is wasting a chance to truly prepare kids for school.

“The most important thing is high quality for our four-year-olds and that includes a ratio of 1-10, one teacher per 10 students, and credentialed teachers, accredited centers, and this bill just doesn't go there,” says Loranne Ausley, (D) Tallahassee.

A tougher version of the pre-k proposal has stumbled in the Senate with its sponsor temporarily postponing a vote over and over again.

With all the disagreement over whether the Legislature is enacting a quality pre-k program, it's possible nothing will come out of the Capitol this year. The governor says he stands ready to veto the House bill if it doesn't measure up.

“We'll be disappointed we've worked hard, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings particularly has worked hard, but if it's not the kinda bill that would work, we're not going to support it,” says Gov. Bush.

Which would mean the fight over how to prepare Florida's four-year-olds for school could get even uglier next year. Florida's pre-k program has to be in place in time for the start of the 2005 school year.