Despite landing a $32 million federal grant this month, child care advocates say they are stumped on how Louisiana will pay for sweeping changes in its early childhood education system.
“Money is the biggest issue, and right now, there is no money,” said Jonathan Pearce, president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana.
The worries focus on a 2012 law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
It is supposed to replace a preschool setup that critics contend is plagued by inequities in funding and quality and is confusing to parents.
But the measure became law without any appropriation attached, and backers have spent months asking how the state can provide better-qualified teachers, serve more children and offer better oversight without additional dollars.
The issue surfaced again last week during a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education committees.
State Superintendent of Education John White, responding to questions, said four options are worth exploring.
He said they include raising private dollars and reallocating existing state resources.
White said local districts can also blend a wide range of state and federal aid to offer more seats to 4-year-old students from impoverished homes, which he said has been done well in the West Baton Rouge Parish and West Feliciana Parish school districts.
“Of course, the state has no money,” White said in an interview a few days later.
State services face a $1.4 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins on July 1 to maintain spending at current levels.
That means any kind of major funding injection for early childhood education is highly unlikely in 2015 and probably beyond that.
The state recently landed a federal grant of up to $32 million to provide new and improved classes for about 10,500 youngsters in New Orleans and elsewhere. However, the assistance in the first of four years is just $2.4 million, and it applies only to 4-year-olds.
“That will be very helpful, so that is great,” said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Policy Institute for Children in New Orleans. “But that is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Bronfin has been sounding alarms for nearly a year about how the early childhood overhaul will be financed.
“I am deeply concerned, as I was before,” she said.
Bronfin said the state Department of Education has acknowledged the need for dollars.
“What hasn’t happened is any solution in terms of how we fund that,” she said of financing the law.
One reason for the revamped system is the fact that nearly half the children who enter kindergarten in Louisiana lack the skills needed to be ready to learn.
The new rules include early performance guidelines for children from infants to age 3, academic standards for 3- and 4-year-olds and report cards that grade the sites.
The state also is setting up early childhood networks that include child care, Head Start and pre-K classes in public schools and private schools that get public dollars.
White said the hope for more private dollars stems from a $5,000 state tax credit for firms that donate to nonprofits to support child care centers, teacher training and instructional materials.
“We have an opportunity to boost business participation,” said John Warner Smith, executive director of Louisiana’s Next Horizon, a nonprofit education advocacy group.
Smith also is vice chairman of a panel that advises Louisiana’s top school board on the early childhood law.
Asked about prospects for financing the changes, he said, “It is going to be a challenge, let me put it that way.”
Pearce, who operates four early childhood learning centers, said he and others recently invited some Acadiana lawmakers to hear about disparities in various early childhood education settings.
“The consensus is that there is no money,” he said.
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