THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 25, 2013..........In their first quarterly meeting since the legislative session ended, members of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet were upbeat Thursday about new laws and restored funding to help early-learning programs, children with disabilities and new mothers and their babies.
"It was very nice, for the first time in a very long time…when you have the wherewithal to start restoring dollars in critical areas," said Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who represents the House on the panel. "A lot of these programs had been cut to the bone, and we knew that."
Harrell pointed to parts of the 2013-14 budget aimed at increasing funding for the Guardian ad Litem program, boosting teacher salaries and taking disabled children off a waiting list for home services.
The meeting in Jacksonville came amid controversy about the deaths of five children who had been in contact with the state Department of Children and Families. DCF Secretary David Wilkins, who had been the cabinet's chairman, resigned from the department last week.
Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters chaired the meeting instead, and started by thanking Wilkins.
"He has always been a great source of strength and comfort and guidance for DJJ as we work through our issues," she said.
The meeting featured legislative updates from state agency heads and discussions of bullying in schools, aligning early learning with the upcoming "common core" curriculum standards, and reviving a mentoring initiative that flourished under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Several panel members had been in the news already this week.
Walters, for instance, was asked about her visit to the Capitol to meet with protesters at Gov. Rick Scott's request. The protesters have been sitting in Scott's office waiting area since July 16, demanding a special legislative session to address the state's controversial "stand your ground" self-defense law and calling for changes in the juvenile-justice system. They converged on the Capitol after George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin.
Walters said she and her staff kept up the contact throughout the week, providing data and discussing policy. She described some of the protesters as "earnest, sincere students who really want to play a role in improving our system."
She also called for an increase in restorative justice --- an alternative to the "zero tolerance" approach practiced in Florida schools and decried by the protesters.
Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and longtime children's advocate David Lawrence also reported on the efforts of a work group that is aimed at expanding access to early learning. Bennett said the group is exploring the use of incentives in enterprise zones to increase both the number and quality of early-learning providers.
"Kids can be disastrously behind by the age of four," Lawrence said.
Bennett also said the group wants to align the curriculum of early-learning programs with the Common Core State Standards, which the Department of Education is working to put in place in the public-school system.