TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Florida has filed its nearly 300-page Race to the Top application for a $100 million early learning grant designed to improve its voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

The competitive federal grant, for which dozens of other states will also be vying, would be used to bolster Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds.

But Gov. Rick Scott said the state would only accept the federal grant if it requires no future expenditures from the state. “To be clear, Florida will only accept these grant dollars if the award comes back with no strings attached,” Scott said in a statement.

Using the grant will be optional, the governor’s office stated. “No child care business in the state of Florida will be forced to participate in this process,” Scott’s office said in a statement. Instead, providers will be eligible for mini-block grants.

A voluntary pre-kindergarten program can be offered by public or private schools, churches and day care centers.

The application says the state says wants to use the $100 million to ensure better professional development, target at-risk children and help implement systems that will better track student progress.

Many of the same principles touted in the K-12 system, such as the emphasis on data and accountability, were used in the Race to the Top early learning application.

Florida previously won $700 million in a Race to the Top grant for K-12 schools that is being used to implement parts of the new teacher merit pay plan that links teacher salaries to student test scores.

Some proponents of early childhood education say the state should more closely examine which VPK providers are best preparing students for kindergarten and stop funding those that consistently under-perform.

The state spent $385 million on voluntary pre-kindergarten this fiscal year for over 165,000 students, which was a reduction from the year before. (The grant application instead notes that VPK funding has gone up over five years by $41 million.)

Florida already has a system for assessing how well-prepared VPK students are for kindergarten, known as the kindergarten readiness test. Student performance on that test is linked back to VPK providers. But David Lawrence, a proponent of early learning programs, said students need to be tested before and after they start a VPK program.

Though not explicitly addressing Lawrence’s suggestion, the application says Florida will build upon its existing assessment programs by using technology and data to understand whether students are equipped for kindergarten.

“The state will reform its assessment and data systems to better monitor children’s progress,” the application said.

The state says it will use the grant to help implement a “comprehensive” system of assessing student progress.

“At the heart of Florida’s work in this area is the goal of ensuring that all assessment information collected on children, and the teachers and the programs that serve them, is accurate and has a clear purpose and use,” the application says.

“The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.”


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