As more and more evidence builds up about the critical importance of a person’s earliest years, educators and policymakers are right to take a look at what more can be done to make good use of the first years of a child’s brain development.
There have been efforts to make those years count, especially for the children of the poorest families, who would otherwise start kindergarten — much less grade school — behind their peers.
At the same time, the programs that serve the pre-kindergarten population are something of a patchwork.
“There needs to be better organization, better structure, better services for the child,” says Walter Lee, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Most of those involved in this effort probably can agree with that. According to state figures, seven state or federally funded pre-K programs spend anywhere from $1,700 to $7,200 per child. The performance standards for the programs vary considerably.
The good news is that nearly $350 million in state and federal funds are spent on pre-K classes, but as another BESE member, Chas Roemer, noted “We still don’t have all the 4-year-olds covered.”
Since 2002, several state administrations have put money into pre-K education. About $77 million was spent by the state on the LA4 program this past school year. The federally funded Head Start centers spent $72 million in the state.
BESE and other authorities are right to ponder this issue. There is an emerging consensus that high-quality child care and then pre-K education are vital components of education — and society’s future productivity in general.
Locally, the Academic Distinction Fund and United Way have brought in national speakers and started to focus on the earliest years of child development. In West Feliciana Parish, a promising merging of programs might be a model for other areas.
Roemer, who represents the Baton Rouge area on BESE, said the state also needs a “coherent approach” to pre-K education.
All that said, the set of programs and funding sources were established with good intentions, and changes to them — much less upsetting all those political apple carts — should be made thoughtfully. BESE’s discussions are a good beginning.