Despite tight state finances, additional financial aid will be needed to make Louisiana’s pre-K overhaul work, state Superintendent of Education John White said Monday.
“We do need more money if we are going to do some of these things,” White told a jammed auditorium of child care providers and others.
White, Suzy Sonnier, secretary for the state Department of Children and Family Services, and Kathy Kliebert, secretary for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, all said the changes have the potential to have a huge, positive impact on children before they enter kindergarten.
The changes stem from a 2012 state law and are aimed at remedying a system marked by uneven standards, spotty quality and confusion for parents.
Nearly half of the children who enter kindergarten require intensive literacy assistance, according to state officials.
However, the state also is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins on July 1, which means that even the most well-intentioned pleas for additional spending will face major hurdles in the Legislature.
Child care advocates have said for months that the revamped system requires money, especially amid sharp cutbacks in child care assistance in the past five years.
The plan is called the Louisiana Early Childhood Education Act, which takes full effect in August 2015.
Under the new setup, childhood networks are being created, with 13 pilot projects starting last year and 16 this year.
They include child care, Head Start and pre-K classes in public schools as well as private schools that get public funds for pre-K classes.
The state will establish early learning performance guidelines for children from infants to age 3, academic standards for 3- and 4-year-olds and report cards that grade the sites.
White said new state dollars will be needed to meet key goals of the law, including better-trained teachers, improved child care centers and assistance for families struggling to pay for quality schooling.
Depending on funding, pre-K teachers gradually would be required to have an undergraduate degree, to be certified and to undergo training and assistance from local school districts and the state.
In addition, all lead child care teachers by 2019 would be required to have at least a Child Development Associate Credential, or CDA.
Other minimum requirements would apply to child care and Head Start providers.
In a bid to aid teacher training, state education leaders would try to win approval for boosting the scholarship pot from $500,000 to $5 million.
White said greater parity is also needed between pre-K and kindergarten programs.
“We know we can’t make the leap if we don’t invest in it,” he said. “We haven’t invested in a while, and we are making increased demands on the centers.”
Earlier this year, child care advocates said the lack of funding plans was threatening the success of the new setup, which was pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Policy Institute for Children and one of those expressing alarms previously, said Monday her group is pleased with much of what state officials have outlined.
But Bronfin said if state aid for child care centers is not raised quickly amid demands for higher standards, officials of those centers will stop accepting publicly funded students.
Alan Young, president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, tried to defuse some concerns from the audience.
“This is going to take some time,” Young said. “I know it is frustrating.”
The state has nearly 212,000 children, infants to 4-year-olds, from impoverished backgrounds, according to the state.
While 87 percent of those 4-year-olds are in publicly funded classes, the quality varies widely.
About 150,000 at-risk children are not getting publicly funded child care or education services.
The gathering on Monday was described as the first of its kind in a series of sessions around the state.
A newly created advisory council also is expected to hold its first meeting next month.
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