News & Events

State’s VPK for kids reaches a milestone: My Word

By Toni Jennings

Years ago, I was an elementary schoolteacher. Those years imprinted me with many valuable lessons, the most important of which is that academically successful children from the earliest grades are more likely to enjoy school. This belief is backed up statistically: An overwhelming 74 percent of all students who fail to read proficiently by the end of third grade falter in later grades and often drop out before earning a diploma.

So today, I reflect on a formidable event that took place 15 years ago addressing the educational needs of our state’s youngest children. On June 15, 1999, I stood alongside Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a host of early-education professionals at a local child-care program in Orlando.

On that day, the governor signed into law the School Readiness Act, which would create an organized educational system for children and a framework for early-childhood-development expectations. Then serving as state Senate president, I was committed to a vision where all of the state’s children arrived to kindergarten ready to learn and succeed.

Three years later, Florida reached another milestone. Along with legislative support, voters approved a constitutional amendment that established a statewide program for 4-year-olds. In 2005, Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program legislation was passed, outlining expectations and creating a continuum of early care and education programs for children through age 5.

With this national precedent, Florida has since prepared more children for success. Today, our VPK program is the second largest in the nation, serving more than 1 million of our state’s 4-year-olds.

The more we offer children in the earliest years of life by way of reading, exploring and playing, the more they will absorb, learn and grow. A well-recognized American economist and Nobel laureate, James Heckman, describes early learning as an upstream solution for future generations, given that early investments produce the greatest returns and are less costly than later-life remediation like grade retention or juvenile-justice programs.

Described then as a watershed event, the signing of the act formally recognized the needs of our youngest learners. Each year, some 250,000 of Florida’s children are served in this program.

Our legislative leaders continue to make a major investment in early literacy, which provides parents enormous choice in where to attend preschool.

Former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings was the first chair of the Florida Early Learning Advisory Council and is an advocate for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.