There is a joke that goes around Louisiana's State Capitol: Whatever your question is, the answer is always “Money.” When it comes to dealing with how Louisiana will address the $86 million down-payment a state-commissioned report said was needed to bring Louisiana Early Care and Education programs in line with public need and quality standards, this joke seems particularly apt.
But all it took was the will to begin to correct a decades-long decimation of these critical programs for children aged 0-4 years: Finally, thanks to bipartisan leadership by the governor and Legislature, $18.8 million in new funding was awarded to early child care and education.
Sure, it is still a long way from the $86 million annual investment experts in state government forecast is needed to bring our programs in line with need and quality standards, but it was the first time any new state dollars had been allocated to this very real need of our working families in nearly 10 years.
Indeed, the answer is “Money.”
Quality early care and education is not baby-sitting, it is education; it is about quality early learning experiences at the time of life when 80 percent of brain development occurs. Like K-12 or higher education, one year of child care in our state costs more than $7,500 per child.
This is not a joke, and any parent trying to juggle care for infants, or any employer trying to be patient with new parents and their continual child care crises, can attest to that.
For five years, I have worked as the founding executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children because I know the extent of our need as a mom, as an advocate for education, and as a professional who has dedicated 20 years of my life to trying to improve outcomes for children in our state.
It is particularly satisfying to me that over these past five years, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials, business leaders, chamber groups, United Ways, nonprofit agencies, early care service providers, and parents have joined me in speaking up for our need to stop the decimation of our early ed programs.
Together, we have produced ground-breaking studies about how this lack of investment hurts our employers; about how burdensome the costs are to working parents, and how harmful this lack of quality care is to our youngest minds and their future success in school and in life.
Until this session, early childhood programs, especially for children under age four of working parents, were unable to count on state investment, and so the only state-administered program went from serving almost 40,000 to 15,000 children. The new state dollars this year will allow 1,500 more children to be served in the Child Care Assistance Program.
Sounds small, but the investment is huge for working families. Louisiana families with one infant and one preschooler experienced a 35 percent increasein child care costs between 2010 and 2016. Single parents pay 38 percentof their income for infant center care, an important statistic since 45 percent of the state’s children are in single parent families.
Yet, despite our wins this session, Louisiana still spends less than one-half of one percent of its general funds on early care and education. It is serving less than 15 percent of its children in need under age four while two-thirds of young children in Louisiana have both parents working. Perhaps worst of all, over 40% of our children are starting kindergarten behind, and children who begin behind generally stay behind.
It’s clear we have a lot of work to do, but Gov. John Bel Edwards and both parties of our state Legislature are now paying attention because so many people like you spoke up and drove home the solution.
And the fix is simple. It’s an expense we can’t ignore.
As I transition out of leadership of the Louisiana Policy Institute, welcome our new executive director, Libbie Sonnier-Netto, and send out thank-you’s to all those who helped me these last five years, I send out a special thanks to the men and women of Louisiana — people like you who just want what is best for our children and families.
Finally, the administration and Legislature are listening. And for that, and on behalf of all those involved in, and dependent upon, early care and education, I thank you, and encourage you to speak up, because the job is not done, and our children and hard-working families deserve the fight.
Melanie Bronfin is retiring as head of The Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.