Early_Education_Week-Representative_Steve_Carter

State Rep. Steve Carter reads while children enjoy lunch at Fundamentals Early Learning Center in Baton Rouge during Early Education Week.

Despite repeated comments on the value of early childhood education, advocates are bracing for what they view as a paltry allocation likely coming from the Legislature to trim a key waiting list for services.

While 5,520 children from birth to age 3 are waiting for assistance, the list would be trimmed by 7 percent under the latest version of Louisiana's $30 billion operating budget.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who played a major role in shaping the House-passed budget, gets some of the criticism.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, and colleagues also are under scrutiny on whether new dollars will be added in the Senate version of the budget.

But Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, a longtime advocate of early childhood education, says much of the blame rests with Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"The governor says 'Yes, it is a priority,'" Carter said. "In order for us to see it is a priority he has to fund it, he needs to put the dollars where they need to go."

Edwards disputes the criticism and says his administration added $13.5 million to his spending targets.

"Is it everything I would like to do? No. But we are not funding every part of government the way we would like it," he said.

Advocates note that of the $13.5 million, $8.8 million would replace a federal grant that already covers 1,800 four-year-olds.

They say 90 percent of that age group are already covered by state services.

The more pressing need is for those from birth to age 3, advocates say, and another $31 million is the long-shot target by adjournment on June 6.

The funding controversy goes on even as the value of early childhood education wins praise in the House, Senate and elsewhere.

During the House budget debate earlier this month there were multiple testimonials on the value of preparing the state's youngest children.

Former Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, cast the lone "no' vote last week on $1,000 teacher pay raises because he said the state has done little to address early childhood education.

State Superintendent of Education John White said before the session began on April 8 that the most glaring omission in the governor's budget was the lack of dollars for those from birth to age 3.

Polls show the assistance enjoys support among conservatives and liberals alike.

Backers say the money is the best way to tackle a huge state problem – nearly half of children are ill-prepared for kindergarten.

However, all the praise for early childhood education has failed to translate into major hikes in state aid.

"It is just a matter of people not prioritizing it," said Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.

The most urgent need, officials say, is trimming a waiting list of 5,520 children from low-income families who need early childhood education while their parents work, attend school or are in job training.

That service is called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP. It covers about 15,000 children today, down from about 40,000 in 2009.

Those covered today represent 15 percent of the need for services that cost about $7,000 per year.

A total of 3,270 children are on the waiting list for services. Another 2,250 are authorized, but not getting the services because subsidies are so low.

Families of four with incomes of less than $50,000 per year generally qualify.

The House passed version of the budget – House Bill 105 – includes $4.6 million for CCAP. Part of that would open 400 new slots for the 5,520 waiting.

"It is nothing more than a small chip off a much larger stone," White told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

The other $2.3 million would allow state reimbursement rates for care to reach the 25th percentile, which federal officials are pressing the state to do or risk losing more aid.

Cindy Bishop, executive director of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, said part of the problem is the push to earmark proceeds for fantasy sports and other gambling enterprises for early childhood education.

Those efforts have merit, Bishop said, but the returns will be modest and are likely years away.

"So I think legislators think we are taken care of and we are not," she said.

Another obstacle, Bishop said, is the view that early childhood care is little more than a babysitting service for low-income families.

A 2012 state law sponsored by Appel sparked an overhaul in how services are provided, including a state-mandated curriculum to prepare children for kindergarten.

On July 1 lead teachers will be required to have or be working toward an ancillary certificate that shows they have undergone special training.

"That is a huge change in what child care was five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago," Bishop said.

Carter, former chairman of the House Education Committee, said in 2012 early childhood education got special attention from the panel, including then state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

"We were all in agreement that it was a priority, and here we are seven years later and it is still not a priority," he said. "It is still floundering around, trying to scrap around a few dollars to try to make it work."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.