A new software system the Office of Early Learning installed in July remains not fully operational, leaving childcare centers across the state wondering if they are receiving the right payments for their services.
Michelle Lewis, the owner of Beautiful Blessings Early Learning Center in Sarasota, says she has had to spend more than $6,000 of her personal savings to keep her child-care center up and running since July. Rocio Leiva, the owner of a child-care facility in Miami, said she had to take out a $20,000 loan to pay her mortgage and staff. Childcare providers in Manatee and Sarasota aren’t sure, when they review the books, if they are being paid the correct amount.
The small business owners attribute the cash-flow confusion to a flawed new Office of Early Learning software system that has thrown confusion into the process of getting paid by the state for providing childcare.
Lewis and Leiva are among many child-care center owners statewide who say they are not getting paid the full amount they are owed for caring for children from low-income families or providing state-funded prekindergarten. However, no one can verify if those claims are accurate. The Early Learning Coalitions in Miami and Sarasota say they are paying the providers the correct amount.
“It’s frustrating, it’s overwhelming, and it’s frightening,” Lewis said.
The confusion stems from the Office of Early Learning’s July 1 rollout of a $7 million software system that — in part — manages reimbursements for child-care centers that offer state-funded Voluntary PreKindergarten or child care for low-income families.
“EFS Modernization,” as the program is known, was designed to be a one-stop online hub for families, providers, and the Early Learning Coalitions that distribute state money. Parents have been able to use the modernized system since July 2015 to register for voluntary prekindergarten and School Readiness funding, said Elizabeth Moya, a spokeswoman for the agency.
However, Moya said the portal connecting providers to the coalitions is having data issues and has not worked since it went live in July. As a result, the state’s 30 Early Learning Coalitions are paying providers based on their best estimates.
“There has been no lack of testing, no lack of preparation,” Moya said. “It’s just things happen. We own it. The system is glitching, and we are trying to make it right.”
The impact on child-care centers varies across the state. In larger areas, like Miami-Dade, providers went from being able to manage attendance, enrollment, and reimbursements online to reverting to paper and pencil systems. Robin Thompson, the director of early learning for Manatee Schools, and Janet Kahn, the director of the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota, both said the software glitches had created major headaches locally for child-care providers.
Several owners told the Herald-Tribune they had not had any issues with their payments and were confident that the coalitions had accurately calculated how much they were due. But as the new system remained inoperable for months, the confusion that it has sparked — primarily among child-care centers that serve mostly low-income children and rely on School Readiness funding — is causing increased frustration.
“The problem is these providers have to service those children, with teachers, snacks, classroom space,” said Julia Musella, a spokeswoman for “I Am Ready,” an early learning advocacy group. “If they don’t get paid for them, where do they get the money for that?”
For child-care centers that serve mostly low-income children, it is not as simple as adding up how many children attended each week and requesting payment from the Early Learning Coalition. A change in a family’s income status could mean the child no longer qualifies for School Readiness funding, but if a provider isn’t notified of that change of status, they may be stuck trying to collect payment from the family.
An Office of Early Learning official confirmed that providers could be looking at outdated information.
“We are working on all these guesstimates,” said Leiva, who is the lead mentor in Florida International University’s Business and Leadership Institute, a program that provides business training to child-care providers. “It’s complicated. It was already difficult on a month-to-month basis; can you imagine trying to backtrack and fix this mess?”
And, she said, trying to get low-income families to pay for services they already received that they thought were subsidized puts providers in an impossible position.
“Once the services have been rendered, what are you going to do?” Leiva said.
What programs are impacted?
Reimbursement for child-care centers offering Voluntary PreKindergarten and School Readiness programs are both affected by the nonfunctional software.
VPK is offered free to every 4-year-old in the state, and Florida had the highest participation rate of any state in the country last year, with 77 percent of 4-year-olds attending. Providers received $2,282 per child last year, which equals roughly $4 per hour per child and was less than half the national average, according to a report released earlier this year by the National Institute for Early Education.
School Readiness funding is provided to low-income families to help parents pay for child care. Last year more than 200,000 children statewide received child care through more than $600 million in School Readiness funding.
Despite the program’s size and scope, officials at the highest level of the OEL do not know the rationale for how much each county received in School Readiness funding, and a process that auditors described as “outdated and unexplained” was kept in place by South Florida lawmakers who benefit from the inequitable distribution, a 2017 Herald-Tribune investigation revealed.
An attempt to develop a needs-based funding formula during the 2018 legislative session by then-Sen. Greg Steube fell flat.
Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota Director Janet Kahn is in a tug-of-war between providers who say they are being shortchanged and the OEL. Kahn said the Sarasota coalition has been erring on the side of overpaying providers, and she is worried that once the portal is operational, the state may require coalitions to garnish the payments of providers who received more than they were due.
“There is no way providers are underpaid unless children are missing from their roster,” Kahn said. “If the state says we have to reconcile this, it will be a challenge for all of us.”
The Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade had a similar response. Senior vice president for public affairs and public policy Jackye Russell said providers in the state’s largest coalition had been submitting manual headcounts since September, and that the coalition paying more than it usually did before the software problems began.
“The majority of the providers are being paid more than the kids that they serve,” Russell said.
Russell said the discrepancy between providers and the coalitions could be in part due to the providers losing access to all the online tools they once had to track enrollment, eligibility, attendance, and reimbursements.
Office of Early Learning officials say they are hopeful the software glitches will be fixed soon. Moya said the VPK attendance module began working last week, and the School Readiness feature would be operational in January.
Moya said each of the state’s Early Learning Coalitions were handling payment discrepancies with providers on their own. She said the office had encouraged coalitions to “use common sense” but left it up to them as to how they estimated payments.
“They say would you rather overestimate or underestimate — would you rather us overpay or underpay?” Moya said. “Figuring out reimbursement process is up to the individual ELCs.”
Office of Early Learning director Rodney MacKinnon has faced scrutiny for his department’s implementation, and with a new administration headed to Tallahassee in January, early learning leaders are wondering whether MacKinnon will keep his job.
MacKinnon’s position is appointed annually by the education commissioner. Governor-elect Ron DeSantis is recommending former House Speaker Richard Corcoran as commissioner. If Corcoran’s appointment is confirmed by the State Board of Education, it will be up to him whether to keep MacKinnon or appoint a new leader.
Through a spokesman, Corcoran declined to comment.
Saralynn Grass, executive director of the Association of Early Learning Coalitions, said she doesn’t want MacKinnon’s four-year tenure to be judged based on the botched software implementation. She said he has been generally responsive to the software malfunction.
“In the grand scheme of things, he has been a good director, which is why we are trying to stand with him and get this figured out,” Grass said.
The reassurances that the system will soon be working are wearing thin on child-care providers who say the uncertainty about the reimbursements is an unfair burden on their small businesses.
“Just because they are having a problem with the portal doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay your rent or your lights,” Leiva said. “Nobody else cares.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.