Sarasota County’s Early Learning Coalition, which provides early childhood care for asset-limited families, continuously gets shorted in funding due to a mystery funding formula, and waitlists for the program remain high. Now, a state accountability office has been ordered to study the funding formula.
Florida’s Office of Early Learning distributes more than $600 million a year using a decades-old methodology that has been called “outdated and unexplained.” Now, a state accountability office is investigating the mystery formula.
The school readiness funding is disbursed to Early Learning Coalitions across the state to help pay daycare and preschool expenses for asset-limited families. Though demographics in those 30 districts have changed significantly in the past two decades, the formula that governs how the funds are split hasn’t changed in 20 years. The state has acknowledged that it does not know the rationale for why each county gets the amount it does, as previously reported in the Herald-Tribune.
An effort in 2012 to change the formula to one based on the number of children in poverty in each county showed that some coalitions were being shortchanged. The Miami-Dade Coalition would have lost $3.7 million, while coalitions in Sarasota, Osceola, and several other counties would have benefited, according to news reports.
After an outcry from coalitions that stood to lose funding, then-Gov. Rick Scott stopped the new formula from being put in place. Efforts to change the funding formula in 2018 and 2019 failed to find traction in the Legislature.
Now, the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) is studying the funding formula and plans to send its findings to lawmakers next month.
Last year, Florida received a one-time $60 million influx in federal funding to the state’s Office of Early Learning, which largely went toward early childcare for asset-limited families. But the extra funding wasn’t enough then, or now, for many of these families to access childcare.
Even though the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota received $823,630 in new funding last year, the waitlist never dropped below 400 children.
Last month, the waiting list was over 500, which is around where it’s been for the last ten years, according to Janet Kahn, director of the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota.
For the asset-limited families who are stuck on the waiting list due to a lack of funding, trying to find childcare can be a “nightmare,” Kahn said.
Keely Ramsdell, a single mother of two in Sarasota, applied for her son to be enrolled in the School Readiness program the day he was born, and he was on the list for seven months before he could enroll. Ramsdell’s income was too high to be considered for immediate enrollment, she said, but to pay for daycare, she depleted her savings and had to depend on Catholic Charities to survive.
“It got so bad, to the point that I was going to have to give up my home because I couldn’t afford daycare,” Keely said. “Daycare was the largest burden that has been on me and my family… I couldn’t pay my rent since we were paying $280 a week for daycare.”
Access to high-quality childcare and preschool has a significant impact on a child’s readiness for kindergarten, which is an important indicator of a child’s future academic success. This year, nearly half of Florida’s children were not ready for kindergarten, according to statewide testing data released by the Florida Department of Education in May.
When asked about efforts to revamp the funding formula during a talk at the Argus Foundation earlier this month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran changed the subject to funding for voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) — a state entitlement program available to all children, regardless of household income level.
“Listen, we’ll get to the funding part of it,” Corcoran said. “Listen, what we need in the VPK, in early learning, is accountability. When you have 42% who’re taking the FLKRS, the entrance exam for kindergarten and 42% aren’t kindergarten ready, and yet we’re spending all this money on VPK… When we get (accountability) right, then what you can do, like we did in K-12, is the money and the equity follows the justice, it follows truth.”
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.