PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Early learning educators across Florida are celebrating. The 2022 Florida Legislature set a new historic budget for Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten (better known as VPK) Program. Florida leaders voted to allocate $52 million in recurring state funds to raise the base student allocation to an extra $317 per child. The legislature also decided to invest $100 million to give to childcare programs that agree to pay VPK teachers a minimum of $15 an hour. In total, childcare programs can receive an allocation of up to $935 per child.
It is exciting news for Sonal Kachhi, the director of Cornerstone Preschool in Clearwater. Kachhi loves nothing more than watching the kids in her care thrive.
“This is our future,” she said referencing the children playing on a playground behind her. “These are the children who will run our country in the next few years and I feel like it’s very important to give them the best education we all can,” she explained.
Kachhi has been in the childcare field for 17 years but she says operating her center has come with a few extra challenges lately, especially when it comes to hiring teachers.
“It has been almost impossible. We have tried every way: Facebook Marketplace, Indeed, Craigslist. It has become very difficult to hire. I feel like nobody wants to work but it is getting a little better as more people move to Florida,” she added.
She hopes the outlook will improve as more state money will be invested into paying VPK teachers higher wages.
“Of course, that money we are going to get we are going to increase pay and hopefully it will help us more to hire,” she said.
Lindsay Carson at the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County says the additional funding is critical – 90% of brain development happens before a child starts kindergarten.
“Children who participate in VPK are better prepared and more successful in school. We know VPK works,” she added.
Carson says early education leaders were blown away by the new state funding allocations. “The first time I saw the proposed budget, I had to look at it twice. I really was surprised. In the past, we’ve seen increases of $50 per student which we really celebrated but when we are talking about a potential $935 per student, that’s a game changer,” she elaborated.
Kachhi hopes the historic funding will allow more childcare centers to open—or reopen.
“There are many childcares who have shut down and it breaks my heart because they have gone out of business because of covid, not finding teachers and they’re much needed,” she said.
VPK is a free program and registration is open right now. Your child just needs to live in Florida and turn 4 on or before September 1 to qualify.
Since the program is only a half day, organizations like the Early Learning Coalition are offering scholarships to offer wrap-around care.