The Legislature should allocate about $86 million this year to address the most urgent child care and education needs of youngsters from birth to age 3, a state panel said Tuesday.
The spending recommendations for what officials call "LA B-to-3" would gradually provide care for 114,000 of 173,000 children in need and who are generally eligible for Medicaid. About 22,000 children are covered now.
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Organizers said less than seven percent of those from birth to age 2 have access to child care and education services and around 33 percent of three-year-olds.
"Louisiana is scraping the bottom of U.S. maternal and early childhood health outcomes and has decreased workforce productivity and economic competitiveness," according to an executive summary of the draft report.
Early Childhood Care and Education Commission Executive Summary
"Without investment in early care and education Louisiana can expect more of the same," it says.
The report said the spending "will provide high quality experiences for Louisiana's children during the most critical time of brain development."
Only about half of kindergarten students are considered prepared for school, one of the issues driving the debate.
Louisiana is getting nearly $8 million to improve the quality of early childhood education, officials said Wednesday.
The recommendations were made by the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission, a 24-member panel of lawmakers, child care experts and others set up by a 2018 state law.
The report will be submitted to the Legislature, which convenes on April 8.
The state's financial outlook is brighter than in recent years.
However, sponsors of request conceded that the request represents a daunting challenge.
Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, co-chair of the commission, said while the $86 million is a "huge number" it is needed to get the state where it needs to be, and has been well-received in discussions with a variety of groups.
"They are about us being a real player nationwide, not playing catch-up like we have been doing for so long," Mizell said. "We have a great argument."
She said, "We know the outcomes within a generation could change the look of the state."
The panel did not spell out where the money should come from. Even sports betting revenue, if it becomes reality, is years away from having any substantive impact.
"The state needs to lead," said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children and a member of the panel.
"It can't all come from the state but at some point the state needs to step up," Bronfin said.
The recommendation totals $839 million in yearly installments over the next decade, which backers envision coming from federal, state and local dollars as well as business and philanthropic groups.
The initial investment would address today's waiting list of about 5,500 children in the state's Child Care and Assistance Program, which assists parents while they are at work or attending school.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week addressing the waiting list should be the top priority of any push to upgrade early childhood care and education. Whether Edwards' budget proposal will include dollars to trim the waiting list is unclear.
Donald Songy, the governor's education policy adviser and former superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system, attended the meeting.
"The commission has done what it was charged to do, let's look at what it would actually take and they have done that," Songy said. "The next step is how do we make that happen?"
One of the first steps, Songy said, "is to educate people on how important this really is. Once they can see that it is that important, that it is the key to improving education in the state, then let's find a way."
First Lady Donna Edwards, who attended the meeting, is a non-voting member of the committee.
The recommendation sparked concerns on how quickly families can expect assistance, and the fact that some children on state waiting lists will age out before dollars are available for services.
Backers of the request said they hope to duplicate LA 4, the state's decade-old program that provides care and education for about 16,000 four-year-olds in need.
However, LA 4 is now largely funded with federal dollars after once getting up to $82 million per year in state support.