Norma Schwartz: Parents need VPK accountability to know kids are ready for kindergarten – before school begins

How are parents supposed to know if a prekindergarten program is doing its job?

In Florida, we want kids to arrive on the first day of kindergarten ready to learn. When we set up our children to succeed in kindergarten, we put them on a path filled with a lifetime of opportunities.

Yet on the assessment check, the state gave these new students a month into the school year, the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener, more than 40% of kindergarten students weren’t performing at grade level. The increase in the number of kindergarten students assessed as “ready” for kindergarten is a reason to celebrate, growing from 53% the previous year to 57%, but it’s still not where we want to be.

How can 2 in 5 students fail to meet the mark nearly 20 years after the state committed to providing high-quality voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) services for every 4-year-old child in the state? That’s around 175,000 children yearly who attend $400 million in taxpayer-funded VPK programs around the state.

Florida’s investment in VPK has helped boost many of the state’s key education advances in the 2000s. Since the VPK program began in the 2005-2006 school year, more than 1.8 million children have matriculated. The first class of high school seniors who started out in VPK had a graduation rate in 2018 of 86.1%, reflecting tremendous progress from the 58.8% rate the year before VPK was launched.

Still, the issue of VPK accountability demands immediate attention. Is the state’s overall investment in early learning working to provide our teachers with students who are safe, secure, healthy, happy, and ready to learn when the bell rings on the first day of kindergarten? If performance on the state’s kindergarten assessment is an indicator, we have more work to do on our road to success.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell (SB 1282) and Rep. Erin Grall (CS/CS/HB 419) would make common-sense reforms to improve accountability of the state’s VPK programs.

During a recent committee hearing on her bill, Grall summed up why Florida needs VPK accountability. “Think about it, if you have a kindergartener and you’re a couple of months into kindergarten,” she said at the subcommittee meeting. “They take a screener. The state looks at you and goes: ‘By the way, your child’s not ready for kindergarten.’ Well, thanks so much. We’re here now – what are we supposed to do?”

To promote the early identification of struggling VPK students who need additional help getting up to speed, the Harrell/Grall accountability bills would assess a student’s progress while they are still attending VPK. The information provided by this approach gives parents the opportunity to measure the effectiveness of prekindergarten services in improving their child’s readiness and success when they start school.

It’s nonsensical that the state waits for students to enter kindergarten before assessing whether they’re actually ready for kindergarten. On top of that, how are parents supposed to know if a prekindergarten program is doing its job if they have to wait until the child has already started kindergarten to find out?

Harrell and Grall’s approach will make a meaningful difference in improving education in our state, beginning in the earliest years. Providing parents a report on their child’s progress toward kindergarten readiness – while the child is still enrolled in VPK – gives everyone an opportunity to provide immediate and concentrated attention to that child, in real-time.

Florida’s VPK providers are tackling an incredible challenge, one that’s important to future workforce development, job creation, and quality of life in Florida. We can help them better serve children and parents by providing them with these tools to demonstrate the good work they do to prepare children for success. This legislation gives them an incredible hand up in their work to promote early education and provides kids with a lifetime of independence and self-reliance that flows from school readiness.


Norma Schwartz is Florida Association for the Education of Young Children (FLAEYC)’s Statewide Advocacy Chair and also serves on the Board of Directors.

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