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Just ahead of the 2019 legislative session early childhood education issues are increasingly winning attention, including the news that those who teach and care for the youngest students are paid an average of $8.95 per hour.

The pay issue comes on the heels of three other developments.

On Jan. 25, the sponsor of an upcoming bill that would legalize sports betting said he is open to dedicating revenue from the games for early childhood education.

On Jan. 29, a task force recommended that the Legislature allocate $86 million this year to address Louisiana's most urgent early child care and education issues.

And on Feb. 25, state Superintendent of Education John White said the most glaring failing of Gov. John Bel Edwards' proposed budget is the lack of money to address a 3,300-family waiting list for early childhood services while moms and dad work or attend school.

White also voted "no" on a task force resolution to endorse the governor's $1,000 teacher pay raises — which White emphasized he backs — because it leaves out early childhood education teachers despite their low pay.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said pay for those teachers has not kept pace with the state's push since 2012 to overhaul, upgrade and professionalize the care and education for those from birth to age 3.

"The question has to be, do we want a baby sitter or a teacher?" Appel asked.

"For years, we look at early childhood as baby-sitting services," he said. "Now, we are realizing it has to be more than that. ... The days when you could just get anybody off the streets who can change diapers and watch kids play with toys are gone."

The news that early childhood teachers make an average of $8.95 hourly came from a study done by the Center for the Study of Child Employment by the University of California at Berkeley.

"This is a huge national problem, that teacher pay for child care is literally minimum wage or a little more with no benefits," said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.

Bronfin noted that turnover among those teachers is more than 40 percent per year, in part because of low pay.

Turnover was 42.4 percent from July 1-January 31, according to the state Department of Education.

The issue surfaced at a time when state education leaders, legislators and others are increasingly saying that the state's best way to improve its education system is to better monitor and develop children in their first 36 months. That is the job of early childhood teachers, who are supposed to call attention in cases when children are behind in their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.

One such teacher, who asked not to be identified, said the $8.95 per hour average is accurate, especially for those who lack experience. The jobs typically include 40-hour weeks, 12 months per year.

However, second jobs are often needed when their primary employment pays less than $20,000 per year.

Louisiana has more than 12,000 members of the early childhood teaching workforce, including pre-school teachers for four-year-olds and others, according to the University of California at Berkeley report.

Pre-school teachers typically are paid roughly double what early childhood education teachers get.

Rank-and-file teachers make an average of $50,000 per year, plus benefits.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the state's two teacher unions, said he was very surprised to hear early childhood teachers are paid an average of $8.95 per hour.

But Carter, who was at the task force meeting, said he was also surprised that White would push for early childhood education money during a panel meeting on state aid for public schools.

"No one on the task force can impact funding for early childhood programs," he said.

Despite the low pay any push to raise it is likely a year away, when the governor says he plans to make early childhood education a priority.

Edwards is seeking a second term this year.

Most of the attention in 2019 will be on finding dollars for the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps families pay for child care while parents are at work, in job training or attending school.

White has said today's 3,300-family waiting list may grow to nearly 10,000 by the end of the year when some federal aid ends.

About 15,000 families are covered now, down from about 40,000 a few years ago.

In addition, the state is facing heat from federal officials because what the state pays families — up to $5,940 for infants, toddlers and pre-kindergartners — is so low that parents are forced to pay the difference or settle for substandard care.

The state is in the process of requiring early childhood teachers to have at least a high school diploma, and starting in July an ancillary certificate that shows they have undergone special training.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.