This year, United Way of Northeast Florida continued to grow and solidify its presence in the Florida legislative process, taking a proactive approach to influencing public policy affecting our core areas of education, income, and health. In addition to being heavily engaged in crafting a 2014 United Way of Florida Legislative Consensus Agenda, United Way also contributed its expertise to legislation dealing with a broad range of issues, including middle school early warning systems and an early learning quality incentive pilot.
Since the beginning of the year, United Way has organized two advocacy trips, participating in 27 meetings with various members of the Florida Senate, House, and their legislative staff. The result was a significant voice in crafting public policy and the strengthening of United Way relationships with several local delegation members.
With the conclusion of the 2014 Florida Legislative Session last week, we wanted to offer a short list of issues United Way tracked and advocated on. Most notable among our advocacy achievements were results in the area of early learning funding, which saw a gain of over $25M in the 2014-15 Florida budget.[hr]
Throughout the 2014 Session, the Florida House focused their efforts in early learning exclusively on raising health and safety standards among Florida Providers (HB 7069). United Way was supportive of these efforts, specifically advocating the position of maintaining strong local control throughout Florida’s Early Learning Coalitions.Unfortunately, in the final hours of Session, the Senate added several unrelated amendments to the early learning bill, which ultimately doomed its passage in the House. Without coming to consensus between the chambers, the bill died. It is anticipated that the health and safety issues in the bill will be revisited in next year’s legislative session.
On the bright side, because of the efforts of United Way and children’s advocates throughout the state, Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program will see an additional $8.8M in reoccurring funding, which equates to a base allocation increase of $54 per student. We’ll also see another $3M go to increasing opportunity for families seeking School Readiness assistance, and the allocation of $10.5 to fund a School Readiness Provider Performance pilot program that will go directly into increasing quality throughout Florida’s early learning system. We are really excited by the latter and look forward to seeing this program yield positive results so that we can come back next year and expand funding for it.
Prior to the start of the 2014 session, United Way met with Rep. Janet Adkins regarding her interest in promoting the creation of middle school early warning systems. Her interest stemmed from research from Johns Hopkins University that has shown that dropout risks can be identified as early as sixth grade. These “early warning indicators” include, for students in the sixth grade, attendance in the range of 80-90% or below, receipt of an out-of-school suspension, and course failure in English or math. Once these students are identified, early intervention strategies are used to get them back on track.
United Way’s Achievers for Life (AFL) program supports initiatives like this and we were more than happy to offer our expertise and advocacy to establish such an effort statewide. Though Rep. Adkins’s bill hit a few bumps in the remaining hours of session, becoming what is known as a “train”–a bill that gets another bill attached to it–she worked extremely hard and ultimately prevailed in the passing HB 850 out of both chambers.
Child welfare reform was a top priority for legislators this session, after a Miami Herald investigative series focused attention on child deaths from abuse and neglect. A comprehensive reform bill (SB 1666) passed on the last day of the legislative session making significant changes to the state’s system of child protective investigations and case management of children at risk for abuse and neglect. The legislature also added $47 million to the budget for child protective investigators, case managers and family support services, though some advocates argue that the additional funds are not adequate to meet the anticipated increase in caseloads.[hr]
In the coming year, United Way will continue to develop is public policy program, which now includes the engagement of a standing Public Policy Committee to oversee and guide its advocacy efforts on the local, state and federal level. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to the Director of Public Policy, Jason Roth, at firstname.lastname@example.org.