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Gov. John Bel Edwards laughs before addressing the joint session as the 2018 Regular Legislative Session begins Monday March 12, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

Better preparing children from birth to kindergarten is the key to improving Louisiana's education achievement, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday.

"If you look at where we are as a state, the truth is we do as good a job as anybody in the country from when they enter school," Edwards said.

"The problem in Louisiana is we have so many kids who enter school so far behind we never catch them up," he added.

The governor made his comments to a gathering of state and national officials on how to provide affordable, quality access to child care to families for children from birth to age 4.

A bill to set up a 34-member panel to launch the effort, including pilot projects statewide, is being sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie.

The measure, House Bill 676, enjoys rare bipartisan support in a Legislature sharply divided over how to resolve recurring state budget problems.

The nearly two-hour gathering included officials of the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Much of the state's focus in recent years has been on four-year-old children, and better preparing them for kindergarten.

Experts said so much of the brain is developed by then that targeting younger children is imperative, and a topic in a variety of states.

Aaliyah Samuel, division director for the education center at the NGA Center for Best Practices, said she has visited five states in eight days.

"In every single state early childhood has moved to the top three priorities," Samuel said.

Improved access to early childhood education, especially for those from low-income families, was a recurring theme.

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Samuel said that, in affluent families, children are exposed to 45 million words per year compared to 26 million in working class families and 13 million in low-income homes.

"Thirty million words is a lot to make up before you start school," she said.

Samuel said 40 percent of children nationwide – about 50 percent in Louisiana – are not prepared for kindergarten.

"When we talk about the achievement gap, it really starts earlier in life," she said. "We really need to focus on experiences so that, by kindergarten, those experiences are there and they are truly ready for kindergarten."

Hilferty cited a statewide poll done by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab.

The results showed that 40 percent of respondents reported missing work due to child care issues in the past three months.

"This is not just an issue for the workforce of tomorrow," Hilferty said. "This is a workforce issue today."

Hilferty's bill would set up the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission.

The panel, with the assistance of the state Department of Education, would oversee pilot projects aimed at setting up child care centers for children from birth to age 4, which would then be used as statewide models.

Edwards said that, while the effort will require dollars at some point, it is the key step for improving academic achievement.

"This has truly been the missing part for a long, long time," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.