Photo: Daycare students in Ocala

Early Learning Funds Cut in Sarasota, Palm Beach, and Duval

Posted on May 24, 2019 by Ryan McKinnon, Herald-Tribune Media Group

Other counties saw millions in new money, although the funding mechanism remains a mystery.

Nobody knows how it works. And state lawmakers have opted to keep it that way.

This year the state will allocate $676 million in School Readiness funds to pay for childcare for low-income families. The money offsets the cost of care, ideally allowing parents to work full time. It ultimately goes to the hundreds of small-business owners running childcare centers across the state.

But nobody — not the lawmakers setting policy, directors overseeing the agency, nor the bureaucrats doling out the cash — knows the rationale for how much each county receives.

The money isn't given out based on need. One county could theoretically take on every single poor child in the state and not see a significant increase in its base allocation. It isn't given out based on current demographics, population or the cost of childcare in the market.

"No one seems to really know what the allocation is based on," former Office of Early Learning spokeswoman Cynthia Sucher told the Herald-Tribune in 2017.

As the 2019 legislative session ended this month, Palm Beach, Duval, Broward, and Sarasota were among the counties losing out on money for low-income families. Palm Beach's funding was cut by $2.4 million (6%) compared to its allocation last year; Duval lost $1.3 million (4%); Broward lost $1.7 million (3%), and Sarasota lost $161,053 (3%). Miami-Dade/Monroe, with multiple analyses showing a disproportionate share, got $7 million more, or 6% over its allocation last year.

An attempt led by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, to establish a needs-based funding formula for the distribution of $676 million fell apart at the end of the 2019 legislative session. Efforts to fix a funding mechanism that auditors have described as outdated and unexplained once again failed.

Grall was not available for comment on Friday, but Sarasota Early Learning Coalition Director Janet Kahn said Grall's efforts were tanked by coalitions that knew a funding formula was more equitable but stood to lose funding.

"My colleagues actively sabotaged the funding allocation even though we all worked together," Kahn said. "They reneged on their agreements to work together on this."

Grall had sought to garner the support of lawmakers and Early Learning Coalitions statewide to build a formula into the budget language that would be sent on to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

She was cautiously optimistic in April, saying this year was a rare opportunity to establish a funding formula. A mid-year infusion of cash into the system from the federal government meant no coalition would receive less in base funding than their original baseline in 2018-19. However, several counties with high numbers of legislators stood to receive less in total under Grall's proposal than they would if the unexplained methodology remained in place, and none more so than Miami-Dade.

With two dozen legislators between the House and Senate, Miami would have received $12 million less if Grall's plan had been adopted than it ultimately received.

In April, Grall acknowledged that adopting a needs-based formula would be politically difficult because some lawmakers would need to explain to constituents why they supported a measure that may be good for the state but reduce their local funding.

"This is really where you have to put on the statewide hat," Grall said. "It is asking people to step outside of their comfort zone of fighting for their county and say this is what is best for the state."

Despite the failed overhaul, Grall got a small win, with language written into the budget requiring the Department of Education and OEL to develop a funding formula.

However, the same tensions between what is best for the state and bringing home the pork will be present next year, as lawmakers will be once again asked if they want to implement a formula or stick to the unexplained methodology.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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