Florida's bid for federal funding of an early-childhood education program is drawing mixed reviews amid the specter of Obamacare.
A legislative panel's approval of a $3.4 million grant for a home-visiting program for at-risk mothers makes the state eligible for up to $100 million in federal Race to the Top education funds.
Proponents say such programs have proven effective at producing more healthy pregnancies, reducing child abuse and improving school readiness.
Noting that the state already provides some of these services, advocates say the federal grant will bring added support and structure -- and funds.
But critics warn that federal strings will bind Florida more tightly to Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act widely opposed by state Republican lawmakers.
"With this grant, as with federal funding in several other fields, state officials nationwide are placed in a difficult position akin to that of an audience member called to the stage to take part in a magician’s show," said Robert McClure, president and CEO of the James Madison Institute, a free-market research organization based in Tallahassee.
"As part of the act, the magician picks the pocket of the unsuspecting foil, holds up the victim’s wallet, and promises to return it -- minus some of the cash -- if he will allow himself to be hypnotized and follow the magician’s directions," McClure said.
Sara Mead, of the Washington, D.C.-based Bellwether Education Partners, said Florida was one of the few states that were not eligible for early-childhood Race to the Top funds. By pushing the $3.4 million grant forward, the state has put itself in line to compete for larger federal Race to the Top grants.
Mead said the quality of home-visit programs can vary, with successful ones using more trained staff and more frequent visits.
Amber Winkler, of the Thomas Fordham Institute, said, "It's Florida's prerogative to apply for the grant. You can't fault a state in the current fiscal crisis for wanting to get Race to the Top dollars."
But, she added, the devil is in the details.
"The competitive-grant program gives federal officials the right to set the rules," she said.
Critics call the mingling of federal education and health initiatives yet another controlling aspect of Obamacare, which Florida and 25 other states are seeking to overturn as unconstitutional.
"If you don't think the requirements are good, then you shouldn't pursue them," Winkler reasoned.
On the other hand, she said, "If funds align with your mission, then it's reasonable to pursue."
Like every state, Florida is already a little bit pregnant in terms of taking federal funds for education.
The state previously received $700 million from Washington under a Race to the Top program aimed at K-12 public schools. Those funds are being used to help pay for the establishment of the new teacher merit pay program, the News Service of Florida reported.
James Madison Institute's McClure questions the propriety -- and even the legality -- of such collaboration.
"The fact is that there is no real authority for the federal government to play a role in education beyond enforcing constitutional guarantees of due process and equal opportunity," he said. "Education is a domain best left to parents and to state and local governments."
But McClure acknowledged the allure of "free" money.
"Unfortunately, the federal government’s power of the purse -- albeit a power bolstered by money borrowed from China -- confronts state officials with a dilemma: Accept federal grants, with all of the onerous strings attached, in order to get back some of the money the feds have extracted from your state’s taxpayers -- or reject the grants and see your state’s taxpayers’ money sent to other states," he said.
By accepting an early-learning grant, Florida is eligible for up to $100 million that would go toward improving the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.
The move, supported by Gov. Rick Scott, won bipartisan backing at the Legislative Budget Commission last week.
"I absolutely think this is an incredible opportunity for us," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "It's taxpayer money, but it's not money from the budget out of the state of Florida," she said. No state matching funds were required.
The Foundation for Florida's Future, the education think tank headed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, has taken no position on the matter, spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said.
But McClure remains adamant that such arrangements are no bargain for taxpayers and pose an ongoing threat to state sovereignty.
"The solution is to get the federal government out of activities for which there is no constitutional authority for federal involvement. Until that is done, Washington remains a kind of money laundry where revenue derived from the states is shrunk to support the federal bureaucracy, then doled out to states that promise to do the feds’ bidding," he concluded.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.