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Early childhood education funding received a crucial 11th hour increase with the New Orleans City Council’s passage of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s first-ever municipal budget, an "unprecedented" investment in the city's children, according to Council President Jason Williams.

The budget doubles funding for early childhood development — money for child care providers to enroll infants up to 3 years old into daycare and other programs — to $1.5 million, up from this year’s $750,000 allocation. It also funds Cantrell’s newly created Office of Youth and Families.

While the City Council and advocates celebrate the funding boost, they also are aware that $1.5 million still is a drop in the bucket for New Orleans’ young children and their caregivers, with potentially thousands of children on waiting lists.

“This is a good day,” said District B Councilmember Jay H. Banks. “But I don’t want anyone to get comfortable.”

Federally backed Early Head Start and Head Start programs and state-level assistance programs also support early childhood education. Those programs support nearly 6,000 children, but advocacy groups and officials also have identified thousands of others who qualify for assistance. Addressing the needs of those children could cost more than $200 million in assistance from city, state and federal programs.

New Orleans Early Education Network (NOEEN) enrolled 50 children as part of its pilot program with this year’s allocation and expects to double enrollment in 2018.

But educators and early childhood advocates say the funding boost represents a “paradigm shift” in how cities and officials can address funding for vital services for children — compare that funding, and the yearslong battle to get more of it, to the costs of incarceration and myriad public safety initiatives that make up the bulk of the city’s $701 million budget.

Councilmembers and advocates argued investments in programs for children up to 3 years old also are likely to save millions of dollars in those kinds of costs down the line. “This is the front line for public safety,” Williams said. “This is the front line for workforce development,” including for working parents who otherwise can’t afford daycare for their children.

Roughly 30 percent of New Orleans third graders read on that grade-level by the end of their school year, according to the New Orleans Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “A huge part of that is children aren’t entering school ready to learn,” said campaign director Hamilton Simons-Jones.

The funding increase is pulled from the city’s general fund; the council and administration found an additional $4 million from revenue from the French Market Corp., which supports several other budget increases, including $300,000 to the Orleans Public Defenders, $250,000 for the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights, and $110,000 for an “evening reporting center” that would serve as an alternative to the Youth Study Center for juvenile offenders. (Several councilmembers said they want to change the name.)

The City Council had roughly 30 days to approve a budget after Cantrell presented her $698 million plan on Oct. 30. The additional $4 million bumped the budget to $702 million.

After its passage Nov. 29, Cantrell hailed it as “a victory.”

“We have taken the best step forward to make sure 2019 will be brighter for citizens,” she said at a post-passage press conference at City Hall.

The City Council also was pleased with the process, despite a rough start, a tight timeline, and some contradictory priorities with the administration. Several councilmembers said it went “smoothly,” and District B Councilmember said it was the “best and easiest” he’s experienced. Council Vice President Helena Moreno, who formerly served in the state legislature, joked that compared to that body’s infamously tedious and combative budget process, “this is smooth sailing.” Williams replied, “That’s a very low bar.”