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Advocate file photo of a pre-K graduation ceremony in Lafayette

Louisiana's top school board Wednesday approved $700,000 aimed at giving local leaders more input in the state's bid to expand access to early childhood care and education.

A group in New Orleans and the Jefferson and Lafayette parish school systems will be among the recipients of funds that will finance pilot projects that allow local leaders to assess child care needs and provide teacher training to improve quality.

The groups, called Ready Start Community Networks, are supposed to come up with improvements that can be used statewide for children from birth to age 5.

The changes are the latest iteration from a 2012 state law meant to unify and upgrade what used to be a sprawling and confusing system of early child care and education.

"This is one of the last pieces of the puzzle," Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, told a committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday.

The full board approved the funding on Wednesday without discussion.

The 2012 state law called for sweeping changes in early childhood education but left most of the details to the state Department of Education.

The state currently has 65 school systems and other groups – also called networks – that serve as sort of a clearinghouse for local child care providers, including data collection.

Those networks stemmed from the six-year-old law.

The pilot projects are supposed to give local leaders a bigger voice in child care improvements, including resources to improve the quality of local sites.

"We have had lead agencies but we have had not the real structures that bring together all the providers at the local level and all the important stakeholders to make decisions around this part of education," Bronfin told BESE.

"It is very exciting to be doing this," she added. "Other states have these kinds of structures in place."

The $700,000 is part of the nearly $8 million in mostly federal dollars that the state got earlier this month, and which has to be spent in 2019.

Recipients include the New Orleans Early Education Network and the Jefferson and Lafayette parish school systems.

Others include the Iberville, Rapides and Washington parishes school districts and the St. Mary Parish Community Action Agency Inc.

"Louisiana recognizes that communities rather than the state are best suited to address the unique early childhood care and education needs of their families and children," state Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.

"When those unique needs are met, more children enter kindergarten prepared and in turn more children are positioned for success in the early elementary grades and beyond," White said.

Jessica Baghian, assistant superintendent of assessment, accountability, analytics and early childhood said last week the pilots will allow child care issues to be less driven by officials in Baton Rouge.

The pilot projects stem from a 2018 state law.

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