In a photo any candidate for re-election would crave, Gov. Rick Scott is seated alongside a couple of cute pre-kindergarten kids at a science museum as a girl chews on her fingers and a boy reaches in a container for a crayon.
Scott was at the the Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida in Panama City on March 12, 2014, to tout funding for the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program, known as VPK.
A few days later, he boasted about VPK in a tweet: "Florida ranks first in the nation for access to free prekindergarten. We need to keep it that way."
Scott, a Republican, is expected to face former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, in November. Education has become a hot topic in the race and PolitiFact Florida has previously fact-checked claims about K-12 and higher education. Here we decided to explore Scott’s claim about the state’s ranking on access to VPK.
Report comparing states on preschool
Florida’s VPK program launched in 2005 as a result of voters approving an amendment to provide free access to all of the state’s 4-year-olds to prepare them for kindergarten. Students learn how to identify shapes and colors, write their own name, recognize letters and recognize patterns, among other skills. The program is offered at public schools and private day care centers.
Children can enroll in a school-year program that totals 540 hours. That typically translates to three hours a day during the school year -- though many parents pay for additional "wrap-around" hours. Parents can also elect a summer program of 300 hours instead of the school year.
The National Institute for Early Education Research, a unit of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, publishes an annual State Preschool Yearbook that has tracked the funding, access, and policies of state-funded pre-school programs since the 2001-02 school year.
We looked at the rankings for Florida, which was compared against programs in 40 states during the 2011-12 school year. (The next report is expected in April.)
The report ranked the states on the following criteria:
Access. Florida ranked No. 1 for serving 4-year-olds with 79 percent of the eligible population served in 2012. Participation has grown rapidly from about 100,000 students in 2005 to 175,000 in 2011-12. The program remains optional, so it may not continue to grow much higher in terms of the percentage served.
State spending. Florida ranked No. 35 for state spending. The amount of state funding per student dropped from $2,755 in 2008 to $2,281 in 2012, according to the report. The state’s Office of Early Learning had a slightly different figure because it provides a per-pupil amount for the school year and a lower one for the summer. In 2010-11 -- the budget set before Scott was elected -- the per-pupil school year amount was $2,562. Then under Scott it dropped to $2,383 where it has stayed for three years. Scott has proposed a $100 increase.
Quality benchmarks. Florida meets only three of the 10 benchmarks -- those related to early learning standards, class size and site monitoring. It did not meet benchmarks that related to teacher degrees, specialized training and other areas. Florida and Ohio both met three benchmarks. Only one state met fewer (Texas with two).
Experts weigh in on Florida’s VPK program
So what’s the big picture about Florida’s VPK program? Does it make sense for Scott to boast about access when the state lags behind in per-pupil spending and quality benchmarks?
Many states face the tradeoff between broad access and commitment to quality, said Daphna Bassok, an expert in early childhood education and assistant professor at the University of Virginia.
"Overall, Florida’s program is characterized by very high access but relatively low quality, as far as quality standards, length of school day, dollars per child," and other issues, she told PolitiFact Florida.
Another expert said that the benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, are subjective measures of quality.
Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, a former U.S. Education Department official under President George W. Bush and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that one benchmark requires programs to provide one meal a day. But that doesn’t make sense for a program such as Florida’s that offers three hours a day.
"Access and state spending are based on hard data, whereas the NIEER benchmarks are nothing more than the opinion of NIEER, an advocacy organization," Whitehurst told PolitiFact Florida. "I place little stock in the NIEER benchmarks."
Scott’s spokeswoman referred us to the state’s Office of Early Learning for a response.
"When it comes to the benchmarks that NIEER uses to rank states for quality and spending, we believe that the most important benchmark is not included," spokeswoman Cynthia Sucher told PolitiFact Florida. "How well does VPK prepare Florida 4-year-olds for kindergarten?"
Assessments done by public school districts once students enter kindergarten show that almost 82 percent of children who completed a VPK program were ready for kindergarten, compared to about 53 percent of those who did not participate in VPK in 2013. That was the fifth consecutive year of an increase in the preparedness rate for those that completed VPK.
But that data isn’t compelling, some say, because there are likely differences in the backgrounds and abilities between the two groups. Non-attendees may be poorer or have parents who don’t speak English, Whitehurst said. That makes it difficult to draw conclusions that it's the program that's causing better outcomes.
"The present evidence that Florida's VPK is having a positive impact on school readiness and later academic achievement is weak to nonexistent," he said. "This doesn't mean it isn't having a positive impact. Rather, it means that the impact is presently unknown."
Scott said, "Florida ranks first in the nation for access to free prekindergarten."
A national education group ranked Florida No. 1 in access for 4-year-olds during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year available.
However, the same report ranked Florida 35th in state spending per pupil. The report also concluded that the state only met three of 10 benchmarks, though it’s possible for education experts to quibble about the value of those benchmarks.
Scott was careful with his wording because he only mentioned "access," but the rest of the report’s findings may provide a different picture of Florida’s VPK program.
His statement is accurate but needs additional information, so we rate his statement Mostly True.