Children do a vast amount of their learning by the age of 3. But for struggling families in Cape Coral, access to early learning is more difficult than ever.
That will change when the state reallocates who gets what from the finite funds available for early education.
Kathleen Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, addressed the Cape Coral City Council at City Hall this week to tell the board Lee County has historically received the short end of the stick in terms of child care money.
"The Office of Early Learning came up with a formula based on equity that it's trying to phase in over the next six years," Reynolds said. "Before, we had historically been underfunded by $10 million. That's a lot of money."
With the new formulation, which hadn't been changed in years before now, Lee County could get a larger sum of money, about $10 million over the next six years.
This is why Reynolds asked the council Monday to draft a letter to the state in support of the funding change so that many of the 5,000 children on the waiting list for early education in Lee County could get that care.
Funding has been a major problem for early education. More than 100,000 children statewide are on waiting lists.
Cape Coral Councilmember Derrick Donnell led the charge for the council to do just that, adding he saw in the body language of his fellow council members that said they wanted on board.
"The auditor general's report said we needed the money and that the formula wasn't equitable," Donnell said. "It is money we need for our youngsters."
The council quickly embraced the idea. Donnell said the letter will be sent out this week.
Reynolds has also requested from the Board of County Commissioners that its voice be heard to get more funds allocated.
The extra $1 million will put 200 more children into childcare locally. That means families that can't afford day care and are forced to stay home can come off welfare and food stamps and re-enter the workforce.
"Some of them are so desperate they put kids anywhere. You're building future criminals without a loving environment," Reynolds said.
For Reynolds, it's more than an opportunity to get poor working parents affordable day care or even non-working parents off welfare and to work. It's about investing in early education at a time when a child desperately needs it - between birth and 3, when the brain is developing the quickest.
"Research shows limited change in learning ability after second grade. The biggest bang for the buck is preschool," Reynolds said. "Economists are saying it. Other countries get it. For 25 years I've been hearing we need a more diverse work force. Sorry, kindergarten is too late."
Data also shows better early education reduces the dropout rate, crime, domestic abuse and the need for remediation once in K-12, Reynolds said.
The drawback is that with the pie not growing, someone has to suffer. With Lee County getting a bigger piece, places like Miami-Dade will see a reduction of $22 million over the next six years.
While Donnell and Reynolds said it is unfortunate Dade children will lose that money, getting the funds for Lee County still is important for them.
"I'm excited to get the money. We've been preaching for years the need for this, and we're finally getting attention," Donnell said. "They're looking at the data and they're getting it now."
The Early Learning Coalition serves Lee, Collier, Glades and Hendry counties. It helps more than 5,500 people.
Their mission is to "enhance the quality of children's lives by providing families, early childhood educators, caregivers and community partners with opportunities to positively impact the future."