Louisiana’s first big budget fight will likely be over K-12 schools, early childhood education (copy)

Louisiana's budget debate could center around how much money early childhood education programs will receive. 

After years of fits and starts, 2020 may be the year for a major breakthrough in state aid for early childhood education.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who will be sworn in for his second term on Jan. 13, has put the issue near the top of his legislative agenda.

Business groups in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles and Shreveport are extolling the virtues of how early childhood education is also a workforce issue.

Lots of Republicans and Democrats alike agree that steps are needed to tackle a huge problem linked to early education: only about half of children enter kindergarten in Louisiana ready to learn.

Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards, noted that the state has made few significant gains in public schools in the past 10-15 years.

"And the more we looked at that once a kid starts behind it is almost impossible to catch them up," said Songy, former superintendent of the Ascension Parish School District.

"If we really want to make significant gains in K-12, then we have to get kids to kindergarten ready to learn," he said.

Exactly what the governor will recommend is unclear, including how much and where to spend it.

State aid rose $18.8 million earlier this year, including 1,400 new seats for children to attend centers while their parents work or attend school — called the Child Care Assistance Program.

A total of 13,901 children are enrolled in the assistance program, and another 2,081 are on a state waiting list.

Up to 40,000 children have been in the program at one time in the past.

Aside from trimming the waiting list boosting family reimbursement rates — historically among the lowest in the nation — and raising the pay of early childhood education teachers are possible targets.

Those teachers are paid an average of $8.95 per hour.

One potential stumbling block is how well Edwards will work with the newly emboldened GOP Legislature, which has a supermajority in the state Senate and close to one in the House.

That said, making stimulation and education a priority for children from birth to age 3 is showing unprecedented political traction.

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, who is co-chairwoman of a state panel that requested $86 million per year in new spending, compared the issue with the popular criminal justice overhaul of 2017.

"I think we are in a situation pretty much like criminal justice reform, where you are seeing the benefit from so many directions," Mizell said. "It is not a partisan issue at all. 

"You have got the governor and LABI and individual legislators, Republican and Democrat, all seeing it," Mizell said.

"They may have different views on what the benefits may be but there are enough benefits to satisfy anybody's political leanings," she said.

The arguments for the aid are twofold: benefits to the children and the ability of parents to work and pursue promotions knowing their children are in good hands.

"The first 1,120 days are the most critical of a child's life," said Cindy Bishop, executive director of the Child Care Association of Louisiana. "We are just beating the drums about the research."

Bishop, who has worked on the issue in the Legislature since 2006, said support is growing in part because so many groups have gotten behind the cause.

"There used to be a time when I was the only one in the sandbox," she said. "Now we have lots of great advocacy groups pushing the message with us."

Key leaders of the push, including the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, see business groups statewide as vital allies in the bid for state dollars.

A 64-member group behind the effort called "The Ready Louisiana Coalition" includes the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, GNO Inc., Jefferson Business Council, Kenner Business Association, New Orleans Chamber, One Acadiana and the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce.

"The economic returns are undeniable," said Jessica Baghian, assistant state superintendent for education, who helps oversee early childhood education programs.

Others in the coalition include United Way chapters across the state, the League of Women's Voters of Louisiana, the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families and the Urban League of Louisiana.

"It has become a bipartisan issue," said Libbie Sonnier-Netto, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute. "It is like apple pie and the Fourth of July."

Melanie Bronfin, Sonnier-Netto's predecessor and now policy consultant for the group, said Louisiana was ahead of other states years ago when it launched classes for 4-year-olds called LA-4.

"We got it," Bronfin said. "We just didn't get the whole picture."

The state serves 94% of 4-year-olds from low-income families.

The focus now is on children from birth to age 3.

Among children in families eligible for Medicaid, 34% of 3-year-olds, 10% of 2-year-olds, 7% of 1-year-olds and 3% of infants are served, according to the Governor's Office of Programs and Planning.

Annual child care costs total $7,500, state figures show.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who served on the House Education Committee for 12 years, said it is vital that children from low-income families gain access to education and care so they are prepared for kindergarten.

"We know that if we have good child care for individuals who want to work they will be able to get a job rather than stay home and take care of kids," Smith said. 

"It is a whole domino effect," she added. "It is also a way out of poverty."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.