Advocates of early childhood education won their first state funding increase this year but some of those gains have already been offset by a rising demand for services, officials said Tuesday.

State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, said the $20 million allocated by the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year "is a good start."

"I understand it is not where we need to be," Hilferty said.

Jessica Baghian, assistant state superintendent of education, said $8.9 million of the funding hike allowed the state to remove 1,400 children from a key waiting list, with 750 of those youngsters already authorized for services.

But another 552 children have been added to the same waiting list as of July 30, Baghian said.

"We got a big uptick in applications," she said. "The reality is the dollars are just limited."

Hilferty and Baghian made their comments during a meeting of the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission, which was created by legislation that Hilferty sponsored last year.

The panel in January asked the Legislature for $86 million to make a major dent in the roughly 173,000 children from birth to age 3 who need services.

The request and followup efforts paid some dividends, with early childhood education winning a high profile during the 2019 legislative session and Gov. John Bel Edwards and others touting the urgency of the issue.

The $20 million allocation included $8.9 million to trim the waiting list for the Child Care Assistance Program, which assists low-income families seeking education and child care while they work or attend school.

The waiting list is over 4,000 children.

Another $2.3 million was approved to boost the amount of assistance families who qualify get to pay for child care services.

The increase moved rates to the 25th percentile, which means families have access to about 1 in 4 centers statewide.

The rest of the $20 million – $8.8 million – allowed the state to continue services for about 1,800 four-year-olds after a federal grant expired.

Most youngsters that age are already covered compared to major gaps for those from birth to age 3.

Members of the commission said visits with lawmakers and others on the need for the state aid point up the challenge in raising awareness.

Hilferty said one unidentified lawmaker she spoke with indicated that putting the youngsters in front of televisions was part of the answer.

Cindy Bishop, executive director of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, said some lawmakers have not been in a child care center in 20 years.

Bishop said while politicians routinely say they support early childhood education exactly what that means varies.

Former state Rep. Tony Ligi, who represents the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry on the commission, noted that a large number of freshmen will enter the Legislature in January because of term limits and retirements.

Ligi said those lawmakers need to hear about the merits of early childhood education or backers will lose the momentum they gained this year.

The Louisiana Policy Institute for Chlldren, one of the leading advocacy groups, has teamed up with a communications firm to develop talking points for commission members to use when they are pushing their cause.

The group is also trying to convince candidates for governor, the Legislature and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to add early childhood education to their campaign platforms.  

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.