In 2002, Florida voters once again signaled their support for quality education for all students by approving a constitutional amendment that established a free, universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds. In 2000, state education commissioner candidate George Sheldon proposed a state-funded preschool program for all 4-year-olds in his campaign. By 2002, the idea had gained bipartisan support – it was one of the few issues about which the two gubernatorial candidates that year agreed. The program was launched in the 2005-2006 school year.

Early childhood education is critical to reducing racial inequities in short and long-term child health and educational outcomes. Creating early learning opportunities benefits children of all income levels and has both human and economic returns on investment. However, the intent of the new voluntary pre-kindergarten program was thwarted by lawmakers’ funding decisions. The amendment stated that the program could not be funded through existing education funds, but it did not stipulate other parameters, such as how much instruction should be included. The 2003 Universal Pre-K Advisory Council recommended six hours of programming per day with four hours of core programming, which still presents a hardship for parents working eight hours a day or more. The state board of education reduced the number of hours to four, and today only three hours of instruction per day is offered.

Still, the success of this program has been remarkable, with 65.9 percent of Florida’s 4-year-olds participating at a cost of $427 million for the 2023-24 school year. However, with only three hours of instruction, the state once again falls short of living up to its promise. Increasing investments in children and families – across race, class, and geography – can help to close the inequities in health and education outcomes perpetuated by continued underinvestment in early learning and child care.  Investments in our very youngest children’s growth and development maximize their contribution to our economy and our democracy.