The Wild Story of How Residents Petitioned for Free Pre-K in Florida


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Florida (24% Latino) is home to the nation’s largest free preschool program.

How did they get it?

The long and winding story started 70 years ago and called for epic action—like enabling people to tax themselves for the sake of children, and local residents bypassing state legislators and petitioning for a public vote for universal Pre-K as a Florida Constitutional amendment.

By the end, Florida had a model that other states can follow to get free Pre-K in their state.

The Need for Greater Access to Preschool

Latino and all children who attend high-quality early childhood programs are better prepared for kindergarten and overall school success than children who do not attend such programs.

However, Latino kids and families across the country face many barriers to access quality early care and education programs.

Florida Counties Gain Authority to Invest in Child Wellbeing

Currently, Florida is the only state with laws allowing counties to create a tax to invest solely in the wellbeing of children and families.

Florida attorney Leonard Cooperman led this charge 70 years ago.

Cooperman was disturbed by the number of kids who were going through the criminal justice system. He wanted to establish an independent body of citizens and community leaders to focus solely on the welfare of children. He had the idea to combine the independent body with a special taxing district mechanism.

In 1945, he drafted legislation to establish a dedicated governing body and funding source for children in Pinellas County, Fla.

The Florida Legislature passed the bill allowing a levy tax if approved by local voters.

Pinellas County voters approved 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable property in 1946. This was the first time an independent body was combined with a special taxing district mechanism in the U.S, let alone for children.

However, across the state, services for children remained scattered and siloed, if any.

Palm Beach County wanted to create a similar taxing district to serve children and families. With support from citizens and legislators, Palm Beach County drafted legislation allowing counties across the state to establish governing boards and special taxing districts solely to enhance children’s lives.

In 1986, the Florida Legislature passed the Juvenile Welfare Services Act. This law allows any county in Florida to create a special district with voter-approved taxing authority, known as a Children’s Services Council (CSC). Each county in Florida can now create an ordinance through the board of county commissions establishing an independent taxing authority to use local tax money to serve children and families within the boundaries of their county.

In 1990, Pinellas County voters approved raising the tax rate to $1 per $1,000 taxable property.

Since then, nine counties in Florida have established CSCs special districts, including Broward, Hillsborough, Martin, Miami-Dade, Okeechobee, Palm Beach, Pinellas, St. Lucie and Duval counties, with an average of 50 cents per $1,000 taxable property.

Many of these counties included a “sunset” provision requiring voters to reauthorize CSCs within 5-15 years.

For example, in 2000, Broward County (27.8% Latino) voters approved to levy a 0.48% property tax to fund the CSC. This tax would would require reauthorizing from voters in 2014.

Florida’s Petition Campaign

Around 1999, a Florida newspaper editor and a mayor were mobilizing early childhood advocates in Miami-Dade (67.7% Latino) and across the state to promote children’s issues.

David Lawrence Jr., retired Miami Herald publisher, and Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade County executive mayor, teamed up. Lawrence, who founded the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in 1999 to boost local early childhood education and development, was concerned about the 160,000 children between birth and age 5.

“We would burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to first grade far more children eager and ready to learn,” Lawrence said, according to one source.

Penelas proclaimed 1999 the Year of the Child in Miami-Dade County. They help community meetings an summits which included educators, parents, doctors, child-care providers, and community leaders.

Ultimately, this lead to the creation of the CSC in Miami-Dade, known as The Children’s Trust, in 2002, in which voters approved to levy a 0.50% property tax, which cost the average home owner less than $60 a year and would produce around $100 million a year.

Lawrence and Penelas also drafted legislation for free, universal pre-K. The bill was introduced in both houses of the Legislature.

The bill failed in 2001.

It failed again in 2002.

Lawrence and Penelas took charge to mobilize Florida voters to enact universal pre-K (UPK) when their legislature wouldn’t.

Through the state’s petition process, they wanted to get voters to put UPK on the ballot as a Constitutional amendment. At the time, only 23 other states allowed Constitutional amendements by voters’ petitions

In Florida, the people have a right to propose amendments to the Florida Constitution through an initiative petition process. In addition to other requirements, this initiative petition process requires a specific number of petitions to be signed by registered Florida voters before the proposed amendment by initiative can appear on the ballot.

Lawrence and Penelas gathered 722,000 petition signatures, and got UPK on the ballot.

In 2002, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that guarantees the availability of a free pre-K quality experience for every 4-year-old in the state.

Read this case study of the first-hand account of how this successful UPK campaign was organized, run, and financed.

By 2011, more than half of Florida’s 4-year-olds attended the state-funded UPK.

By the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 80% of 4 year-olds attended UPK.

Reauthorization of The Children’s Trust

Lawrence knew that the crucial years for language and other development are between birth and age three.

“While high-quality prekindergarten for 4 year-olds is an important contribution to success for children, it is not first in my mind, because children can be so far behind by age 4,” Lawrence said, according to one source.

He wanted to ensure Miami-Dade children wouldn’t be left behind when the Children’s Trust came up for reauthorization in 2008, under the original sunset provision. If voters didn’t reauthorize the Children’s Trust, it would disappear.

Unfortunately, the reauthorization came up during a nationwide economic collapse.

Lawrence knew he needed to campaign hard if he was going to ask voters to tax themselves during an economic downturn. His campaign was designed to be nonpartisan and was conducted in English, Spanish and Creole. Political strategist, Sergio Bendixen, commissioned numerous public opinion surveys to determine areas of resistance and adapt campaign messaging.

Lawrence nearly single-handedly raised $1.64 million.

The Children’s Trust Founding Board Chair David Lawrence Jr. (Center), CEO & President James R. Haj (Left), and family. Source: SocialMiami

It worked, as voters approved reauthorization of The Children’s Trust.

Read this case study about the historic reauthorization during an economic collapse and watch the video here.

“I have come to believe that an integrated, comprehensive approach – covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5 – is our best hope for lasting progress and the best hope for a strong future for the people of Florida,” Lawrence said, according to one source.

The Children’s Trust now provides over 200 programs to better the lives of tens of thousands of children.

Although early childhood education is often considered a nonpartisan issue, which is advantageous when advocating for policy change and funding, early childhood advocates tend to be polarized for ages 0-3 or for preschool, which can weaken advocacy efforts for both sides.

Learn from Florida’s strategies, tactics, and techniques to advocate for children.

Connect with your State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care, as well as advisory local councils. Contact your state policymakers and request that early education be incorporated into state plans and funding.

By The Numbers By The Numbers



of Latino parents support public funding for afterschool programs

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