While Louisiana is launching an ambitious overhaul of its pre-K system, how to pay for it is a recurring problem.
The issue flared last week during a lengthy meeting of a 30-member advisory panel that is making recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Alan Young, former president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana and a panel member, charged that some of the new rules for pre-K centers are so costly and rigorous that they could be forced to close. Another worry is that charges generally assessed to parents could rise so sharply that they would pull their children out of the centers.
State aid is badly needed, Young said, but no easy options are available.
“You cannot, say, go to the Legislature in the spring and ask for $250 million or $300 million to do this,” he said later.
The rollout stems from a 2012 state law called Act 3 that was part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s bid to revamp the state’s public education system.
Critics said the old setup was marked by uneven standards, spotty quality and confusion for parents.
State officials said that, in 2012, Louisiana spent $346 million for seven state and federal pre-K programs.
But nearly half of the children who enter kindergarten are not ready to learn, officials said, and about 150,000 at-risk children were not getting publicly funded child care or education services.
The new rules include 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.
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 funds.
The Ascension and West Baton Rouge school districts are more than a year ahead of schedule in offering coordinated services.
However, the legislation did not include dollars to finance the overhaul.
John Warner Smith, vice chairman of the advisory panel, was part of last week’s lengthy discussion of licensing rules for pre-K centers that BESE will consider next month.
“Our main concern, and big focus outside of this piece, is the funding for Act 3,” said Smith, who is chief executive officer of Louisiana’s Next Horizon, a nonprofit education advocacy group.
“In order for Act 3 to work, that has to be some additional investment for access, for quality, for equity,” he said.
Leaders of the push for improved pre-K options have made similar points for months.
They said the issue is especially pressing amid a 58 percent funding cut in the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for pre-K and child care while parents are at school, working or undergoing training.
Young’s comments triggered pushback on the advisory panel.
Melanie Bronfin, a committee member, disputed Young’s view that it is unreasonable to expect that a state ranked 49th in per capita income can afford the pre-K improvements needed to meet national standards.
“I would argue we are 49th because our education is so poor,” said Bronfin, who is executive director of the Policy Institute for Children in New Orleans.
Jeanne Burns, another committee member, told the group she thought the purpose of the 2012 state law was to help prepare children for school.
“All centers need to incorporate learning activities, not just those that get public funds,” Burns said in an interview later.
Centers that serve children include those owned or operated by church or religious groups that do not take any public funds; those that take public dollars only for food and nutrition; and others that take public funds.
How to pay for the new requirements is an issue that is surfacing with some regularity.
State Superintendent of Education John White told child care providers and others in September that money is needed to make the pre-K overhaul work.
White said that includes requirements for better-trained teachers, improved child care centers and assistance for low-income families.
Young, who serves as legislative chairman of the 600-member Child Care Association, noted that many child care centers are expected to operate on about $2,000 per child, 12 hours per day year-round compared to at least $4,500 per child for other programs that last about eight months of the year, six or seven hours per day.
“Every other program out there is fully funded,” he said of Act 3. “This one is not.”
Burns, an assistant commissioner for the state Board of Regents, said she is mindful of the dollars involved.
But she added, “If we do not start to address their needs from birth on up, we are never going to get to the point where children are coming to school ready to learn.”