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Marlene O'Toole: We'll Fix Early Learning

February 13, 2013 - 6:00pm

There was some dvu when the House Education Committee on Wednesday heard an auditor general's report on the Florida Office of Early Learning and the 31 early learning coalitions statewide.

The new report follows up on an earlier one, released in December 2011, that was scathing in its portrayal of $40 million worth of fraud, leading lawmakers last year to try to fix the system, only to see Gov. Rick Scott veto their main effort.

Problems with ineligible parents accessing the early learning programs appear to remain. The programs are supposed to serve working families, but the two audits have found thousands of people enrolled who are also collecting unemployment compensation.

State officials had assured lawmakers they'd crack down on the fraud after the first audit but the new review showed many of the same issues remain.

"I'm a little shocked, like some of my colleagues, that we're experiencing Groundhog Day again," said Rep. Jeanette Nuz, R-Miami.

"For the returning members, this is dvu," said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami.

A big part of the problem is the inability of state computers to match data between the two benefits programs. Auditors say that to match up the computers could be difficult because the early learning coalitions, which administer programs at the local level, are working with old technology.

"Your coalitions are operating basically on paper," said Shan Goff, who took over as director of the Office of Early Learning when Mel Jurado resigned in December in the wake of the previously identified problems.

The school readiness programs are intended to help parents keep jobs or prepare for them, by providing subsidized child care. The typical school readiness family has two children and an average income of $19,000 a year.

Without school readiness programs, it would cost these parents 50 percent of their household income for child care in order to work. With school readiness benefits, child care costs 7 percent of the family's income.

But given the statewide waiting list of 75,000 children for readiness slots, there's no room for fraud, said Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, the panel's chairwoman.

"There's less (findings of fraud) this time, but there's still some," she said. "So there's work to be done."

O'Toole directed the members of the House Education Committee to visit early learning coalitions in the next two weeks, preferably not their own, and come back with recommendations.

"I don't want to be beat by any other state, and I don't want an audit like this to cross my desk ever again," O'Toole said.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee, is working on a bill to address problems with the funding formula for the early learning coalitions.

After the meeting, O'Toole said she's not concerned about who's to blame.

"I'm not a finger pointer," she said. "I'm just going to say there's obviously been some personnel changes over there, and that's a good thing, probably. And we'll get to the bottom of it."

Ted Granger, president and CEO of the United Way of Florida, said he doesn't believe there is widespread fraud in the early learning programs.

"I think that there are responses to the audit that can be provided by the early learning coalitions and the Office of Early Learning that can address many of the findings," he said.

Granger also praised O'Toole for seizing the initiative.

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