When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Louisiana this week, he came bearing gifts: a big federal grant to provide new and better prekindergarten classes for more than 10,000 Louisiana youngsters.
The state was among 13 that won grants, announced Wednesday in connection with a White House event on early childhood education.
The $32 million grant over four years will provide two significant benefits, according to state Superintendent John White. Seats in pre-K classes will be available for an additional 4,580 4-year-olds. The grant will allow another 5,954 children to attend classes run by college-educated teachers, which will address the longstanding problem of uneven quality in pre-K classes.
The initial beneficiaries are six communities, including Orleans and Iberville parishes, where state officials say a huge demand exists for 4-year-old seats and where local officials have shown they can quickly enroll more. Others are in north Louisiana.
White said the state applied for $32 million to be spread out over four years. 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, allowing other parishes to apply in future years.
We believe strongly in the benefits of pre-K classes. Obviously, children from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack the very basics from infancy. Although pre-K is not the only solution to catching up academically, it is a huge boost for them.
A 2013 study demonstrates lasting gains in educational achievement in the classroom from children who get the benefit of high-quality pre-K programs. The report from the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette looked at 3,711 students who began the state’s LA4 program in fall 2002 and looked at LEAP test scores from the fourth and eighth grades. The benefits were striking for those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.
Even as late as the eighth-grade LEAP tests, at-risk students continue to score better than their peers — 9 percent better in English, 14 percent in math, 11 percent in science and 8 percent in social studies.
This grant is aimed at both access and quality.
We congratulate White and his team on its perseverance on this grant application, despite the political maneuvering of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal wrote another of his political harangues disguised as an official communication to President Barack Obama. The governor asked amid the politically self-serving rhetoric for assurances that the grant dollars would not be linked to Common Core.
This was another example of Jindal milking a controversy, having converted to opposition to the Common Core academic standards now in use in Louisiana. Fortunately, common sense prevailed over Common Core politics.
Though this was not a particularly edifying example of how to do business as governor, Jindal deserves credit for backing the application. He also has backed legislation aimed at improving the quality of early childhood education; within the limits imposed by Jindal’s chaotic budgets, he has been a backer of pre-K classes — just not enough.
As White said, this new grant is a great benefit, but it is far from enough. Louisiana resources are ultimately needed for education of Louisiana children, and in that we hope the next governor will be a more enthusiastic supporter of pre-K classes.