After controversy on whether it was linked to Common Core, Louisiana landed a federal grant Wednesday of up to $32 million to provide new and improved pre-kindergarten classes for about 10,500 youngsters in New Orleans and elsewhere.
“This grant is an enormous step forward for our state,” state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.
Whether the state would even apply for the money was in dispute earlier this year.
Gov. Bobby Jindal wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking for assurances that the grant dollars would not be linked to Common Core, which he opposes.
After a flurry of letter exchanges with White, the governor announced in October that he would back the request.
State officials then learned on Tuesday — details were embargoed until 5 a.m. Wednesday — that Louisiana was one of 13 states that would receive funding to expand their pre-K programs.
“These states are leading the way in expanding access to children in high-need communities,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters.
White said the money will have two benefits.
He said it will allow the states to offer seats to an additional 4,580 4-year-olds.
Also, White said the grant will allow another 5,954 children to attend classes run by college-educated teachers, which will address the problem of uneven quality in pre-K classes. “Nearly 5,000 children who never would have been served will be served,” he said.
“Nearly 6,000 children who would not have been served in a quality environment will be served in a quality environment,” White said. “It is not enough but it is a huge step forward.”
The initial beneficiaries are six communities where state officials say a huge demand exists for 4-year-old seats and where local officials have shown they can quickly enroll more.
The list includes Orleans and Iberville parishes. Others are Caddo, Rapides and Lincoln parishes and the city of Monroe.
Other parishes can apply in future years.
White said the state applied for $32 million to be spread out over four years.
He said that, while Louisiana only has a $2.4 million commitment of federal aid for the first year, he is confident that all four years will be covered.
Louisiana is overhauling its early childhood education system amid complaints about uneven quality, standards and access.
The changes stem from a 2012 law pushed by Jindal.
The new system includes early learning performance guidelines for children up to age 3 and academic standards for 3- and 4-year-olds.
White said about 38,000 4-year-olds from low-income families are served now in public settings, leaving another 5,000 or so unserved.
Up to 2,000 more are enrolled in child care centers, which also stand to benefit from the federal grant.
Spending ranges from about $1,700 per child at child care operations to about $8,000 at Head Start centers.
Federal officials announced the grants in connection with a White House gathering Wednesday on early childhood education.
A total of $226 million is being allocated.
Duncan said the U.S. ranks 28th in the world in offering preschool access.