A new push for better early childhood education is long overdue.
And a look backward, offered by the Council for a Better Louisiana, shows that real progress is possible when local and state leaders are willing to commit the resources needed to move ahead.
Here's CABL: “In the late 1990s the vast majority of children in Louisiana had no access to quality pre-K programs for 4-year-olds. But with the creation of the state’s LA-4 early childhood program and a concerted state effort to piece together revenues and work with local school districts, the numbers flipped.
“Today approximately 90 percent of economically disadvantaged four-year-olds in our state have access to quality pre-K programs. The studies that we have of these children over that period show clear benefits in terms of their education.”
That's not an unalloyed success story, since Louisiana still is hardly among the tops in investing in children before they hit the first grade. State dollars are hard to come by, in an era of cutting taxes in the name of economic development — even as the deficiencies in education of our workforce hurt that same goal.
Much of the progress of LA-4 has been made by tapping federal funds and otherwise cobbling together money to make the system more widely available.
Still, as CABL said, the need for earlier childhood care is pressing: “By age 5, 90 percent of a child’s brain is fully formed, and countless studies have shown that early education experiences during those formative years can have a profound and positive impact on children that lasts the rest of their lives.”
There are many more children up to age 3 who need better child care — often too expensive for working families — and also higher-quality educational experiences in those sensitive years. The CABL story shows that providing for their needs may be difficult, as it was in the LA-4 population, but if we start at it and keep at it, the state is better off for it.
Louisiana has the second-highest rate of poverty in the nation, and 29 percent of children live in poverty-level households.
Today, about 22,000 children under age 4 in poorer households are enrolled in quality child care programs, before they get to LA-4's pre-K population, but CABL said that is out of about 170,000 who need a boost from state and local governments to get the care and brain development that they need, and deserve.
The good news is the “quality” part. The New York Times recently reported on improvements in educational support during Head Start, the federally funded program. And in Louisiana, under the leadership of Superintendent John White, the state Department of Education has been pursuing more federal funding and strongly supporting quality standards for the early education of young children.
A state commission reported that about $80 million a year should be invested to bring those children into high-quality programs so that in LA-4 they are ready to learn.
That’s a lot for a conflicted and priority-muddled State Capitol, but if we remember CABL’s history lesson, perhaps we'll make a good start.