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Ahead of the legislative debate, Baton Rouge area lawmakers Wednesday got a chance to tour a child development center to see what children from six weeks to age 5 do all day, including Spanish instruction as early as 18 months.

Gov. John Bel Edwards wants the state to spend another $25 million per year so that about 4,000 children on a waiting list can attend sites like the Southside Child Development Center, which has operated for 28 years.

Advocates often note that 90% of brain development is done by age 5.

They say expanding state aid for children whose families work, are in job training or attend school would help trim Louisiana's high rate of students who enter kindergarten unprepared to learn.

But the governor's proposal, even amid rising interest in early childhood education, is sure to spark controversy.

State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, who visited the center, said the issue is not whether lawmakers support the state's youngest learners.

Bacala said the question is how dollars for early childhood education compare to other priorities in the governor's proposed $32 billion operating budget.

Freshman state Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, a veteran educator herself and member of the House Education Committee, toured the facility and took part in a roundtable discussion of early childhood issues.

The center houses 50-60 children daily for up to 10 hours per day, said Elizabeth Andry, director and owner  of the center.

Hours are 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Different classrooms house infants, crawlers, children who are walking and three- and four-year olds.

"Our children move up by development," Andry said. "They don't move up by age."

Three playgrounds are on the site.

Child/teacher ratios range from 4 to 1 to 9 to 1, better than state requirements.

State lawmakers often ask how the centers differ from traditional day care.

Andry said Southside's seven teachers work on children meeting milestones for what they should be doing by certain ages.

"Children needs this for their overall development," she said. "They need to be interacting with our teachers, being spoken to."

Southside has its own education curriculum.

Teachers undergo 12 hours of professional development and have an associate degree in child development or an alternative certificate in early childhood education.

Southside is classified as a Type 3 facility, which means it accepts payments through the state's Child Care Assistance Program.

The program helps low-income families defray tuition costs, which officials say averages about $7,500 per year statewide.

About 14,000 families get the assistance, down from about 40,000 a decade during a time of brighter state finances.

Southside and other centers could benefit slightly by expanding the rolls of CCAP – potentially more customers.

Issues that spark concerns among child care advocates are Edwards' bid to boost the state minimum wage, which could have a big impact on the budgets of child development centers.

About 12,000 people statewide work in the centers.

Average pay for child care employees is $8.95 per hour, according to surveys.

Turnover is about 40% per year.

The state has about 1,700 child development centers, said Cindy Bishop, executive director of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, which hosted the gathering.

A state panel in 2019 and 2020 has urged the state to boost spending on early childhood education by about $86 million per year for 10 years.

Doing so, officials say, would ensure quality child care and education services for 173,000 children from birth to age 3 not served today.

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