Pre-kindergarten programs in Louisiana have become a confusing array of efforts with varying standards, costs and successes, state officials say.

“There needs to be better organization, better structure, better services for the child,” said Walter Lee, the longest-serving member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Lee made his comments during a special forum last week where BESE members spent part of a morning zeroing in on one topic: how classes aimed at preparing students for kindergarten are faring.

Ample research shows that quality pre-kindergarten programs give children a boost academically and socially.

Experts say many children who enter kindergarten behind their peers never catch up.

What sparked the controversy are findings that:

•  Seven state and federally funded pre-kindergarten programs operate in Louisiana, spending from $1,726 to $7,200 per child, according to figures provided by the state Department of Education.

e_SBlt  Exactly what the state expects children to learn in the classes is unclear.

e_SBlt  How much value taxpayers are getting for their investment also is unclear.

Chas Roemer, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge, said nearly $350 million in state and federal funds is being spent yearly on pre-kindergarten classes.

“And we still don’t have all the 4-year-olds covered,” Roemer said.

Louisiana has about 65,000 4-year-olds.

About 41,000 are enrolled in public pre-kindergarten programs, and nearly all of them are from low-income families.

The largest such effort is called LA4, which began in 2002 and is designed to prepare 4-year-olds, mostly with state funds.

Nearly $77 million was spent during the 2010-11 school year for 15,762 such students, state figures show.

Head Start, which is federally funded and has operated since the 1960s, served 9,625 students at the same time using $72 million in federal funds.

Other programs are aimed at special education children and those from low-income families, with eligibility and other criteria that varies.

Three of the programs are under the state Department of Education.

One is overseen by BESE, one by the Governor’s Office and two are funded with either federal money or a combination of state and federal dollars.

The wide range of efforts shows the state is “going at it from 10 different directions,” Roemer complained. “I don’t think we have a coherent approach to Pre-K.”

Even with the pre-kindergarten push, former state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said in April that one in three public school kindergarten students fails to reach the fourth grade on time.

How pre-kindergarten money is spent was a recurring theme during the forum.

“It would be good if we could get our arms around the funding,” said Linda Johnson, a BESE member from Plaquemine.

Lee agreed.

“We just need to start shining some light on the effectiveness of various programs,” he said.

Jessica Tucker, a policy official with the department, said while Louisiana and Missouri both win praise for their programs, Missouri spends considerably less.

Tucker said, if Louisiana spent like Missouri, it would have enough to enroll all 4-year-olds in classes, which is called universal access and has been a state goal since 2008.

Meanwhile, a state law enacted earlier this year is designed to make sure public schools offer a single assessment of youngsters for kindergarten readiness.

BESE adopted just such a test last week despite complaints that several groups, including the Child Care Association of Louisiana, were blocked from providing input even though the state law requires it.

“They totally disregarded our request,” Cindy Bishop, executive director of Child Care Association, said of department officials.

The new assessment is supposed to be phased in as state funds are available.

Bishop’s group and others will be invited to the department on Aug. 29 to share their views, said Rene Greer, director of communications for the Department of Education.

The law is Act 249.