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In Tallahassee, There's a Low-Profile Push for Child Welfare

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  In a state legislative session preoccupied with gambling, guns, booze and tax cuts, the Children's Movement of Florida is pushing a cause that gets little attention: health care and early education for children from poor families.

It may not draw high-powered lobbyists to the Capitol rotunda, but Vance Aloupis, director of the group, said it's about the future.

"Way too often these issues that are truly foundational to the future of our state are going unnoticed," he said. "Every year we drag our feet, a child gets a year older."

In this legislative session, which ends May 1, the Children's Movement hopes to make children of legal immigrants eligible for state health coverage; increase pre-kindergarten spending; and expand the School Readiness program that prepares children for kindergarten while low-income parents are working or training for jobs.

Former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, one of the group's founders, said he sees more interest in these issues now than in his 16 years in the field.

"There are now champions in the Legislature in a way there have not been," and Gov. Rick Scott is more interested than when he took office, Lawrence said.

A health care bill by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, would eliminate a five-year waiting period for health coverage for children in immigrant families up to twice the poverty level. The federal government lifted that requirement in 2009, but Florida still imposes it.

The bill is moving through Senate committees but finding less success in the House. It would add about 25,000 children to the 2.3 million now covered, at an added cost of $46.6 million. The federal government would pay almost 90 percent and the state $4.8 million.

After previous failures, Aloupis hopes the bill will pass this year, but acknowledged, "We are getting down to crunch time. There aren't too many opportunities left for it to be heard."

La Rosa acknowledged the issue is "unglamorous," but said it affects many in his district.

"If a child goes four or five years without health care, by the time they get on our system it's going to cost us more," he said.

Florida now spends $2,437 per pupil for about 170,000 children in pre-kindergarten, down from $2,500 when the program started in 2005.

Aloupis said about $2,700 would be desirable. That's out of reach, but House education appropriations chairman Eric Fresen, R-Miami, is pushing an increase of about $50, and hopes to add $10.5 million in performance-based funding as well.

Fresen also hopes to expand the School Readiness program, adding 1,000 slots to the 184,000 now enrolled, at a cost of about $5 million. That won't make much dent, however, in the waiting list of 55,000.

Scott proposed adding $30 million for 5,500 slots.

Noting most brain growth occurs by age 5, Lawrence said early childhood education and health care would benefit public education and state finances.

"Almost a third of children entering public school are way behind," he said. "The best thing you could do for public education reform is deliver the children in better shape.

"Everyone loves children, but we need to understand what it could mean for the future of the workforce of Florida."