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What historic funding means for local VPK programs

Mark Parker

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The Florida Legislature recently increased VPK funding to historic levels, with a significant bonus for programs that pay teachers a minimum of $15 an hour. Photos provided.

Leaders often say “it all starts with the children” and fail to follow through; this year, the Florida Legislature invested in the state’s future by significantly increasing funding for the Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Education Program.

During the 2022 legislative session, Florida’s leadership infused $52 million in recurring state funding to VPK, raising the base student allocation (BSA) by $317 per child – the highest level in the program’s history. In addition, the Legislature appropriated $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for providers that pay teachers a minimum of $15 an hour, equaling another BSA increase of $618.

Thus, the programs that agree to the salary requirement will receive a total BSA increase of $935 per child. Florida’s Division of Early Learning coordinates the free educational service, and Lindsay Carson, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition (ELC) of Pinellas, put the dramatic funding enhancements in perspective.

“A few years ago, we had an increase of $50 that we all celebrated,” said Carson. “And then there was nothing in between.

“So, this is definitely monumental for us.”

VPK prepares 4-year-olds for kindergarten and helps build a foundation for educational – and, as Carson noted – life and future workforce success. She said the program, free to residents and with no income requirements, serves about 6,000 children in Pinellas.

The ELC does not operate any preschools. Instead, Carson said private preschools, faith-based programs or public schools essentially receive a voucher, and parents can choose where they would like their child to attend. The state-funded student allocation then pays the tuition.

“The Majority of the VPK programs are offered through private preschools,” she said. “Typically, mom-and-pops.”

Carson said the $100 million in federal funding that encourages providers to increase pay for VPK teachers is significant for the program’s success, as the average hourly wage for early educators “is fairly low.” According to recent surveys, the average child development teacher with base credentials makes just over $14 an hour.

Even with a bachelor’s degree, she said the average wage for teachers is just over the bonus threshold at $15.70 an hour.

“When you think about the other companies that are advertising at those hourly rates, you can imagine the competition is very difficult.”

Lindsay Carson, CEO of the Pinellas Early Learning Coalition, said her organization celebrated a $50 increase a few years ago.

Carson explained the average wage for early educators does not reflect their importance.

While people often think teachers only exist in the K-12 world, said Carson, 90% of brain development happens before a child sets foot in kindergarten. She said the Legislature recognizing the value of the program and its educators is “incredible” and offers children better access to high-quality education.

She said the additional funding also allows more flexibility for parents when choosing VPK providers.

“It gives them that opportunity to find a program that best fits the needs of their child,” said Carson. “It just opens up more doors that ultimately lead to better academic achievement and success in life.

The VPK program, said Carson, goes far beyond learning letters and numbers. She said it also provides communication, study and life skills and teaches children how to get along with others and persist in the face of challenges.

Carson added that most of what a child learns during those formative years are the same skills employers seek in employees.

“This is really a critical time in their development,” she said. “And this investment by the Legislature is not only an investment in our children but a recognition of the important work that is happening during that time.”

Carson also noted the correlation between VPK and the ongoing workforce shortage. She said that when early learning and childcare providers experience staffing challenges – and no one is available to care for children – workers in other industries must stay home and look after their kids.

According to the ELC’s latest survey, conducted in April, over half of the county’s childcare centers had waiting lists. Carson said plenty of space was available, and parents were trying to enroll their kids, but there was not enough staff to meet the need.

She called the staffing shortages a real challenge that the ELC continues to closely monitor and hopes the increased funding will help mitigate the problem. To help recruit workers, Carson said the ELC is offering free training, sign-on bonuses, and paying for college tuition.

“It is a growing career, as evidenced by what the Legislature has done with their investment,” she said. “It is being recognized for what it is, which is a critical service for both children and the community as a whole.

“It is a public good and an educational program because our economy depends upon it.”

Covid, explained Carson, also severely impacted early childhood educators but without the same community recognition as other industries. She called preschool teachers “forgotten” and “unsung heroes.”

Carson wholeheartedly agrees that first responders, truck drivers and even the Amazon delivery guy deserve praise for helping the nation navigate a pandemic. However, she lamented that the community often overlooked early childhood educators. Even though, as she noted, they continued to show up so that people in other industries could continue working and know that their kids were in good hands.

“If we don’t have childcare, then none of this other stuff happens,” said Carson. “Respect these professionals that are doing tremendous work.”

Carson hopes community leaders continue advocating for VPK and the foundation it provides children.

Carson hopes the surrounding community will look at VPK programs from different perspectives. Not just as an educational resource but also as something that supports the current and future workforce.

Building public will for the program has been a long process, said Carson, but its leaders are starting to see the fruits of their labor. She hopes area leaders continue to advocate for VPK and recognize the program as a community priority, which she said “really does help to move that needle.

“Just spread the word about why this matters so much. We don’t do babysitting – this isn’t free babysitting. This is an early learning program that prepares children for kindergarten and future success.

“While we are thrilled to be moving in this direction – and this (funding) is huge strides – we still have more work to do; and it’s not something that’s just the schools, just the parents and just the Legislature, but it does take the community to do this work as well.”

To learn more about VPK and the Pinellas ELC, visit the website here.

 

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