Dear presidential candidates: My name is Milagros Amador. For 20 years I have worked as a teaching assistant in a pre-kindergarten classroom in St. Petersburg, Florida. I am also one of those Florida voters who you hope will go to the polls on March 15 to cast my vote for you. If you want my support, you must first make a commitment to the children of Florida by sharing your plan to make universal, high-quality early childhood education accessible to all.
I work with young children with disabilities to help them get a strong start on their future. I love watching my kids learn their letters or their numbers and grow in their confidence in themselves as they build relationships with others. My kids are excited about school, and they start kindergarten prepared and ready to learn.
Some of my kids come into our classroom at the beginning of the year struggling to speak - by the end of the year many of them have made progress communicating with me, their parents and anyone else who will listen. It is so gratifying when my former students -- their faces shining and their futures bright -- come to visit and give me a big hug to thank me for giving them a strong start.
At the same time, their parents thank me for the valuable lessons we are able to teach them about how to cope with their children's disabilities or how to build on their social and academic skills at home. I have seen it over and over -- when a child has access to high-quality early childhood education, the whole family benefits. None of this would happen if these kids weren't lucky enough to have access to the services we provide.
Sadly though, only half of preschool-aged kids in our state are enrolled in public pre-k. That means 207,309 eligible Florida kids don't get what research has shown helps them thrive - access to early learning. Study after study demonstrates how children with high-quality early childhood education have higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance, are less likely to commit crimes, and are more productive as working adults.
Access to high-quality early childhood education is especially important for minority of children and children from low-income families -- we know that high-quality early educational opportunities can give disadvantaged children a leg up in all areas but especially in their social and emotional development and their overall health and well-being. Closing the achievement gap is an investment in our nation's economic future. Every dollar we invest in high quality early childhood programs saves us up to eight dollars in the future.
More than 43 percent of kids in Pinellas County public schools are kids of color -- our county's Latino population is growing particularly fast. However, our Latino early learners suffer from unequal access to pre-k and lower quality programs across the board. In fact, nationwide, only 20 percent of Latino kids are enrolled in high-quality early education programs. As a Latina mother myself, this breaks my heart.
Here in Florida, we passed a constitutional amendment 14 years ago to offer free, voluntary pre-k programs to every 4-year-old in the state. This initiative has never been fully funded. In fact, our state is ranked as amongst the worst in the nation for per-pupil funding for pre-k. That means that Florida's schools and child care centers don't have the resources they need to provide high-quality programs for 4-year-olds.
And I know that the situation is even worse in many other states. Which is why I implore every voter in Florida, and across the country, to do what I plan to do with my vote. Give it to the candidate who makes universal access to high-quality early childhood education a priority. I have seen for myself how it can give every child a jump start on life. There is no time to waste. For this generation of early learners, and every generation to follow, it is up to us to set them on a path to a better tomorrow.