At the State Capitol, everyone says education is a priority, and one is hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t say that prekindergarten and early childhood education isn’t a priority.
To find out how serious they are, look at the funding picture. Or to see whether Gov. Bobby Jindal is serious, check and see how pre-K education is funded.
In the case of pre-K, education for at-risk 4-year-olds is funded with a cobbled-together patchwork of different sources of money. Part of it has been federal stimulus funds, a source much-maligned by Jindal and eagerly accepted in his budgets.
This year, the funding gets even more precarious than usual. The LA4 program, as it is called, is paid for in part by asking the U.S. government to allow $20 million in disaster relief money to be diverted to pre-K. The Jindal administration recently sent the waiver request to Washington.
The connection seems pretty tenuous on its face, but Jindal’s aides said the recovery money would pay for at-risk students in 20 parishes damaged by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Given the patchwork nature of pre-K funding, this is making a pre-K virtue of budgetary necessity.
The idea of paying for a basic educational need with odd lots of cash isn’t particularly new and predates Jindal in office. But since Jindal cut the state’s general fund drastically early in his term through tax cuts and economic development funds, what’s become worse is the odd reaching for cash for what the governor and legislators say is one of their top priorities.
Further, there are indications that pre-K isn’t properly funded to begin with. Charter schools are independent public schools, and as a way of cutting their costs, some of them are no longer offering pre-K. That suggests that funding for pre-K for at-risk children isn’t enough, that school systems and independent charters are having to use some of their budgets to back up the pre-K programs.
All this is not to say that pre-K is in imminent danger of losing funding. Nor is there any law, either, that prevents school boards from asking voters to pay a millage at the local level for higher-quality pre-K in their schools. Just about everyone in education would call that a good investment, as poorer kids often don’t show up in kindergarten ready to learn.
But the state today pays the costs, about $75 million a year, for children from poor families to enroll in pre-K. It is clearly a recurring expense. And if there’s one thing for sure, this idea of bailing out the pre-K fund with one-time money is reaching its limits. This diversion of hurricane recovery funds is almost a new category, ultra-one-time money.
Is it a priority? Not in the Jindal general fund.