The federal COVID-19 relief bills contained significant funding for child care—$3.3 billion across the three major relief bills for Florida’s child care sector and family assistance.
Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2002 that mandated the state provide free, quality, universal voluntary pre-Kindergarten (VPK). The program pays for three hours of educational programming a day for four- and five-year-old children. There is no income eligibility; in fact, 77 percent of eligible four-year-old children in the state attend VPK, one of the highest participation rates in the country. However, many families find themselves struggling to pay for the remainder of each day’s services. Florida’s per student VPK spending ranks 41st out of the 43 states that offer free VPK. Three hours a day is hardly enough for robust, quality education for children, and Florida leaders can do a better job of identifying ways to supplement funding for the remainder of a child's day in VPK.
Florida’s School Readiness Program offers financial assistance to low-income families for early education so parents can work and their children will be prepared for school. The majority of funding comes from the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The program is available to families with income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and most counties have waiting lists for participation.
State lawmakers could improve Florida’s School Readiness program by taking some policy ideas from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Families must have income under 150 percent of the poverty threshold to initially qualify for Florida’s School Readiness program, which provides child care vouchers to working parents. Once a family participates in the program, they retain eligibility until their income exceeds 200 percent of the poverty level, which allows for some wiggle room. However, once at this threshold, the fiscal drop-off is steep, as a family loses these vouchers entirely, rather than in a graduated manner like SNAP. Moreover, these vouchers are valuable, but often not enough, as most families end up paying “overage” charges for their child care provider for the difference between voucher value and true cost of child care. (Center-based care for a toddler in Florida averages $8,618, annually.)
Unlike the SNAP program, School Readiness vouchers are not an “entitlement,” meaning they are not a guarantee for all eligible people. In fact, demand for child care vouchers far outstrips supply; as it stands, only 15 percent of eligible Florida families are lucky enough to receive them.
Despite a recent infusion from the federal CARES Act, stubbornly long wait lists for child care vouchers persist across Florida. Indeed, in light of recent announcements from major corporations like Disney and Target of wage increases to $15 an hour, the Early Learning Coalition (ELC) of Orange County has identified that more funding for School Readiness and a reevaluation of the eligibility requirements are in order.
Acknowledging this need, the Legislature included language in its last two budgets allowing local Early Learning Coalitions to use a portion of their funding to allow initial eligibility for families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level ($43,440 for a single parent with two children). This pilot should be expanded and coupled with a graduated fee scale for families to eliminate a severe cliff for Florida’s School Readiness program. Additionally, without a significant investment to increase School Readiness funding so that more eligible families can participate, this program will continue to only assist a sliver of eligible families. This infusion would also help to revitalize the child care industry in Florida, which is distressed due to pandemic disruption.