Lawmakers should avoid the mistakes that they have made with K-12 schools.

As state lawmakers pay greater attention to early learning, counties should take the lead in ensuring children are prepared for kindergarten and beyond.

Nearly half of Florida children aren’t ready for kindergarten, according to state data, despite Florida’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program having the second-highest enrollment in the country. Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared that improving pre-K preparation is a high priority.

The Florida House Education committee made it clear at a recent meeting that the issue will receive significant attention in the upcoming legislative session. Lawmakers should do so while avoiding the mistakes that they have made with K-12 schools in coupling high-stakes testing with unfunded mandates.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, members of the education committee learned at the meeting that the pre-K system needs a cash infusion so providers can afford to pay and train teachers as well as support families unable to afford services not covered by state funding for three hours per day of VPK.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise: The National Institute for Early Education has consistently given Florida low grades for pre-K funding and quality. The institute found that Florida spent less on its VPK program last year than it did a decade earlier when adjusted for inflation. Such spending is key to ensuring the quality needed to deliver pre-K’s promised benefits, the group reported.

Those benefits can be significant: Research has found that every dollar spent on quality early-childhood programs generates about $7 in future societal benefits such as improved educational outcomes, lower costs for social services and fewer crimes.

In Alachua County, voters recognized the need to supplement state funding by passing the Children’s Trust initiative last fall. And the Gainesville For All initiative, sponsored by our sister paper The Gainesville Sun, has already made early childhood education a focus of efforts in the empowerment zone in northeastern neighborhoods of that city. One idea is using space available in public schools in these neighborhoods to make early-childhood programs more accessible to residents.

Such efforts would better prepare children to attend these schools, but they need to be high quality to succeed. While state data found that 47% of Florida kindergartners overall aren’t adequately prepared, it showed that only slightly fewer VPK participants — 42% — were prepared.

Higher standards must be accompanied by funding to better pay and train VPK providers. Partnerships between early learning experts at UF and others at the CHILD Center in southwest Gainesville provide a template for such efforts.

With the knowledge and funding available locally, other counties should keep a close eye on what Alachua County is doing to lead the state in preparing students to succeed in school and life.

This editorial was originally published in the Gainesville Sun, a sister newspaper within GateHouse Media.