School stock

Advocate file photo

Despite daunting financial challenges, Louisiana needs to focus on offering affordable child care for infants and toddlers, a national expert told a state panel studying the issue Thursday.

Louise Stoney, a consultant who specializes in early care and education finance policy, said figures show the state is "limping along" in offering assistance, especially for the youngest.

Of the state's nearly 212,000 children from poor families from birth to age 4, only 5 percent of eligible infants are in public programs, 9 percent of the one-year-olds and 13 percent of the two-year-olds.

Another 35 percent of eligible three-year-olds are in public child care and 93 percent of four-years-old.

Stoney made her comments to the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission, which was created by a law approved earlier this year.

The aim of the panel is to come up with affordable early childhood education and care from birth to age 4, and make recommendations to the Legislature by February.

About half of children in Louisiana are ill-prepared for kindergarten, and improved child care is seen as one way to improve the state's long struggle with public school achievement.

Stoney told the group that, while the state is doing a credible job serving four-year-olds, providing more slots for younger children is essential even if it is costly.

Infants and toddlers typically cost $11,484 per child compared to $7,128 for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Cost gaps of up to $3,800 remain after state aid and tuition of up to $5,412 and $2,224 respectively.

Stoney is co-founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance and the Opportunities Exchange.

Few dispute the need for more child care.

A total of 61 percent of mothers in Louisiana return to work in their child's first year, according to a 2017 report called Losing Ground: How Child Care Impacts Louisiana's Workforce Productivity and the State Economy.

Also, 67 percent of children here under 5 have both parents, or their single parent, in the workforce, the report says.

The study also said 14 percent of moms and dads said they turned down a job promotion in the previous 12 months because of child care problems.

Another 19 percent went to part-time status and 16 percent quit their jobs because of child care hurdles.

The key issue facing the commission is what it would cost to expand child care slots.

"There is not enough money to do all that we want to do," Stoney said.

Officials need to set priorities, spend strategically and leverage dollars from multiple sources, including state, local and federal sources, she said.

Stoney said national figures show parents pay 52 percent of child care costs, government 46 percent and 2 percent comes from the private sector.

She also said current centers need to be at full capacity before new ones are built.

"Contrary to urban legend there is not a shortage of child care spaces," Stoney said. "If you build it, they may not come."

Elliot Regenstein, a Chicago-based speaker on early child care issues, said more slots for children from birth to age 3 is where the state can make the greatest impact, and where there is the least investment.

"That is a huge opportunity, based on data, that you need to be attacking," he told commission members. "It will take more money to do this right."

Among the 37-member panel's newest additions is First Lady Donna Edwards, who attended Thursday's nearly three-hour meeting.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.