Sarasota’s Early Learning Coalition hopes to move 200 children off of its waiting list to receive School Readiness funding thanks to new federal funding.
Low-income families across the state will have greater access to child care, thanks to $60 million in new federal funding that the state’s Office of Early Learning is distributing largely based on how many children are waiting for services in each county.
In Sarasota County, that means $823,630 in new funding, and potentially 200 new children enrolled in child care programs, Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County Director Janet Kahn said. Manatee will receive about $1 million in new money, and Sharon Oakes, chief operations officer for the Manatee Early Learning Coalition, noted that 144 more children already had been invited into programs since the funding was received.
“We currently have 457 children on our waitlist. Since the award of these additional School Readiness funds in August, we have been actively inviting families in to determine their eligibility,” Oakes said. “We are always striving to get as many children as possible off the waitlist. Of course, this additional funding helps toward that aim.”
School Readiness funding is used by Early Learning Coalitions (ELC) throughout the state to pay for child care for low-income families. Providers have been frustrated by static reimbursement rates — providers in Manatee and Sarasota have not seen an increase in their weekly payment in nearly a decade. Early childhood experts say high-quality early-learning opportunities are vital for improving children’s outcomes, but Florida has lagged nationally in funding those programs.
Rodney MacKinnon, executive director of the state’s Office of Early Learning (OEL), used a needs-based formula to distribute the money, as opposed to a longstanding method of giving each county a set amount, regardless of shifting demographics.
The OEL has long used what auditors have described as an “outdated and unexplained” methodology for distributing School Readiness funding across the state. Last year, an OEL spokesperson confirmed that even the agency’s leaders did not know the reasoning behind the legislatively mandated percentage each county received; the agency’s best guess was that it stemmed from a decades-old breakdown in the amount of federal funding for each county. The approach ignored shifting demographics, and each county received the same slice of the pie each year regardless of changes in the number of low-income families living there, leaving some counties underfunded while others receive millions more than they would if it were distributed based on current data.
MacKinnon, with approval from the Legislative Budget Commission, distributed 83 percent of the new money on an as-needed basis, rather than using the “outdated” model.
“We didn’t want to incentivize coalitions to possibly do things to keep their waitlist high, so we adopted a hybrid approach,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon declined to say whether his approach to distributing the new money indicated a need for lawmakers to develop a funding formula based on current demographics. Attempts to overhaul the allocation method by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, fell flat this year, and coalition leaders have said the best they can expect is a needs-based allocation model for new money, which accounted for just 3 percent of school readiness funding last year.
“That is a question for the legislature who determines the funding allocation,” MacKinnon said.
Currently, 30,869 children are on waitlists in Florida to receive School Readiness funding, according to OEL spokeswoman Elizabeth Moya. MacKinnon allocated $30 million of the new money based on each coalition’s waitlist as of June 30. Another $20 million was allocated based on the coalition’s two-year average waitlist, and just $10 million was distributed using the current allocation methodology.
Still, the decision meant more money for counties that have traditionally been underfunded, according to state analyses. The top beneficiaries of the needs-based methodology were Palm Beach, which received $3.3 million more under the needs-based approach than it would have with the traditional methodology, Broward County ($2.8 million in additional funding) and Duval ($2.1 million more).
The Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County received $293,568 more in funding once its waitlist needs were factored in. Manatee received an additional $86,086, according to Moya.
Miami-Dade took the biggest hit, receiving nearly $4 million less than it would have under the past funding model, followed by the ELC of Flagler and Volusia ($991,166 less) and Pinellas ($935,591 less).
MacKinnon said it was too early to know if Florida could expect the grant to be recurring.
By the numbers:
2017-18 monthly average number of children on the waitlist:
New federal funding received:
Difference in funding
The Office of Early Learning distributed the funding based largely on how many children in each county are waiting on services, rather than using a longstanding method that has been described as “unexplained and outdated” by state auditors. What kind of difference did it make once the OEL used a needs-based approach toward distributing this batch of funding?
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.