Abbie Lieberman

Next week, as the Louisiana state legislative session begins, Louisiana families should have a chance to not only see more affordable early care and education opportunities for the state’s youngest children, but also to protect those opportunities that already exist and might in fact be lost after this year.

Letters: Louisiana must move ahead on early childhood education

At the end of this year, thousands of families could lose access to their early education programs when $8 million in federal funding expires. What’s more, the governor’s recent choice to not include any additional funding for early childhood education in his budget hurts not just the more than 3,300 Louisiana families sitting on a waitlist to receive child care assistance, but all families with young children struggling to piece together affordable care.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently requested $85.8 million for early childhood programs, and the Legislature has a chance on April 8 to take up this request before the negative effects trickle upward in the coming generation of Louisianans.

Despite growing research that high-quality early learning can set children on the path for success in school and beyond, Louisiana has been steadily disinvesting in early childhood programs for years. If Louisiana wants to improve its low fourth grade test scores or even high school graduation rates, it should start by addressing the quality of services children receive long before they enter kindergarten.

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The $85.8 million number was developed by Louisiana’s Early Childhood Care and Education Commission — a group of 37 stakeholders that includes members of the business community, providers and, government officials, among others. Louisianans deserve to know what that dollar amount would do for them. The commission proposes $85.8 million dollars annually for 10 years to eventually serve 114,000 infants and toddlers in quality settings. And very importantly, it would serve all children currently on the waitlist to receive child care assistance, plus provide professional development for educators, and more.

Commission member Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said, "In the past, Louisiana did not have a vision for our early care and education system. This plan not only defines a bold vision for expanding access to affordable, quality early care and education in Louisiana, but it also establishes the cost to achieve it.”

And Louisiana can serve as its own example for how to take steps to improve the quality of care for this age group. In November, New America, a national nonpartisan policy research organization, released a report exploring Louisiana’s efforts to strengthen the early care and education workforce. At the cornerstone of any strong program are effective teachers who know how young children learn and who can support their development. Louisiana is increasing teacher qualifications, offering targeted professional learning, and providing tax credits to supplement low wages.

Early evidence shows that Louisiana’s efforts are improving program quality. One of the reforms New America explores is the state’s new rating system for early childhood programs that measures the quality of teacher-child interactions. In November, the Louisiana Department of Education released the most recent performance results, finding that the percentage of sites providing quality care and instruction increased by 7% last year.

But what is the purpose of improving the quality of care if thousands of Louisianans who desperately need it can’t access it? There is only so much providers can do without a proper state investment.

When the legislative session begins, lawmakers have the opportunity to ensure that all families in need can benefit from Louisiana improving its early care and education. The evidence is clear that the $85.8 million would trickle up to support not just our youngest learners, but also our elementary, high, and even adult Louisianans for years to come. And that’s an investment everyone can get behind.

Abbie Lieberman is a senior policy analyst on the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. research organization.