Fla. VPK faces larger classes, stagnant funding

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ORLANDO, Fla. —

Larger class sizes and stagnant funding from the state -- these are realities for Florida's Voluntary pre-Kindergarten program.

The state spends more than $400 million each year to provide the early learning education to children.

While the program has grown, budgets have not.

Mother of four Darlene Jones said she wasn't able to send all of her kids to VPK.

A young mother, Jones was unaware of VPK when she had her first two children.

By the time she gave birth to her two youngest, she had learned of VPK and demanded that her kids enroll in the state program, which is designed to prepare children for the first years of school. She says the difference is remarkable.

"My two older kids struggled a little because they didn't have access," says Jones. "When you're catching up, the world is still going, the education system is still going."

Jones said her younger children not only have better grades than their siblings, but their attitudes toward education are also much more positive.

Stories like Jones' are exceedingly common in Florida, where a new report indicates only 6 out of 10 low-income families with young children use VPK.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "60 percent of the state's low-income children, aged 3 and 4, are not enrolled in preschool programs compared to 63 percent of children nationwide."

"We have 2,000 (days) from the time a child is born until a child enters kindergarten, and we don't have a single day to waste," says Karen Willis, of Orlando's Early Learning Coalition.

The Early Learning Collation said it is working to help educate parents in low-income areas about the benefits of VPK, however, as the classes fill, schools are being asked to do more with less.

"Right now, we are paying teachers for that program less than we were paying them in 2005," said Willis.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Florida spends $1,700 less per child than the national average.

Educators caution that with flat funding and larger classes, the VPK is not serving the segment of the population most at risk for falling behind in early education.

The state's own research shows middle- and low-income families are the prime beneficiaries of VPK, yet as income decreases, involvement in the program falls.

"If we don't invest early, then we are not going to see the kind of results that we want to see," said Willis.