Sredericka Rodriguez, a 30-year-old employee of the Salvation Army, knows firsthand what a struggle it can be to pay for child care in New Orleans.

To send her daughter, 1-year-old Skye Hartford, to daycare, Rodriguez was scrimping on basic necessities and couldn't pay her car insurance. But in August, Skye was one of 50 children accepted into the New Orleans Early Education Network for City Seats, a pilot program that provides funding for children under age 3 to attend preschool.

"It was like a blessing for me," Rodriguez said of the program, which allowed her to send Skye to the Hoffman Early Learning Center, a preschool run by the charter organization New Orleans College Prep. "I'm absolutely grateful."

Advocates say there are thousands of children in New Orleans like Skye, who could benefit from better quality daycare or preschool programs. And city officials are pushing to increase funding for these types of programs in order to better meet that need.

City Councilman Jason Williams, as a member of the Orleans Parish School Board's working group on early childhood education, requested on Thursday that the School Board provide $1.5 million for early childhood education starting next year. In addition, he asked that Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration double the city's funding for such programs to $1.5 million in 2018. 

In presenting the working group's findings, he equated funding for young learners to an investment with sky-high returns.

"If I said, 'Give me 10 percent of your family's reserves and I will triple your investment in coming years,' everyone would jump on that," Williams said while presenting the group's findings. "That’s what early education is."

If the request is granted, it would mark the first time that the OPSB has provided funding for children so young. In Louisiana, child care and preschool for children 4 and under has historically been provided almost exclusively with state and federal money. OPSB member Ben Kleban said he planned to submit a resolution at next month's board meeting recommending that the board grant the working group's funding request.

The request follows a push in recent years by Williams and others for city government to invest in the city's youngest learners. Last year, at the urging of the City Council, the Landrieu administration allotted $750,000 from its budget toward funding for preschool spots.

It was the first time that the city had provided funding for early childhood education, and it was directed to the City Seats program. But it was only enough to place 50 children in six child care centers scattered throughout the city.

Enormous demand

Williams is now aiming to increase total funding from the city and School Board to $3 million. But even that amount is a small percentage of what experts believe would be required. Altogether, existing programs have left more than 10,000 at-risk children in the city without access to such education, the working group said, using data from the Louisiana Department of Education.

The group of city officials and advocates estimates that more than $200 million is needed to provide a spot for every at-risk child under the age of 4 in New Orleans. 

To that end, the School Board has asked the working group to figure out long-term solutions for expanding access to early childhood education. That could mean a public-private partnership, a fundraising campaign and even a request for a new millage.

The working group is composed of Williams, School Board members and representatives from the mayor's office, the New Orleans Business Alliance and other education advocates.

According to the New Orleans Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, fewer than 23 percent of at-risk New Orleans children age 3 and younger have access to quality preschools.

In New Orleans, only about 220 at-risk infants who were eligible for publicly funded daycare got access to those seats in February, leaving nearly 2,900 in need. 

One-, 2- and 3-year-olds didn't fare much better, but most in-need 4-year-olds were placed because both state and federal dollars are used to fund their education, according to the state Department of Education.

Officials deem children "at risk" if their family's income falls below 185 percent of the federal poverty line or they are at risk of developmental delay. A family of four pulling in a combined income of $25,100 would meet the federal poverty line for 2018.

As of Sept. 5, there was a waiting list of 571 children for the early childhood seats funded by the city's pilot program. And waiting lists are much more dramatic for the two other programs that provide public seats for that age: Early Head Start and the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP.

Lack of access to early education has had a dramatic impact on families, the OPSB working group noted, as one in six Louisiana workers with young children has quit a job due to child care issues.

"This is an enormous first opportunity for our city," Jennifer Roberts, the executive director of NOEEN, said about the city's pilot program. "This directly serves young children who are most vulnerable, and helps families trying to work."

Improving quality

Not only are there not enough spots for babies and toddlers in Louisiana child-care facilities, but historically those spots have not had enough funding to provide quality care, according to Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.

By increasing per-pupil funding, the city's pilot program offers a chance to increase the quality of the daycares and preschools that children are attending, she says.

"It's so exciting what’s happening in New Orleans. I’m so proud," Bronfin said. "This working group said, 'We're going to be real about what this costs.' "

In all, $600,000 of the money provided in the city budget last year went directly toward funding education for the 50 children in the pilot program. That works out to an average of $12,000 per year per child.

That's dramatically more than the state pays for 4-year-olds, which is $4,580 per student. The state doesn't directly fund spots for children under 4.

But even the City Seats' funding may not be enough, according to the OPSB's working group.

In a document submitted to the School Board on Thursday, the working group noted that the federal Head Start program — widely considered to be high-quality — spends $18,000 per child per year for children under 3, $15,000 for 3-year-olds and $12,000 for 4-year-olds.

The high cost of child care, even for care of lesser quality, is something that Sredericka Rodriguez experienced firsthand. Her daughter Skye went to a church-run daycare Uptown that cost $120 a week — relatively low compared to many other centers throughout the city — but Rodriguez still had trouble coming up with the money.

After taxes, she said, she made only about $600 every two weeks. At one point, money got so tight that she had to drop her car insurance just to pay the electric bill and buy groceries.

And she felt Skye was suffering, too. She said her daughter was often put in her high chair so that teachers could attend to other students. Rodriguez thinks it affected Skye's development, because she was late to walk.

Now, Skye participates in a schedule where teachers follow age-appropriate curriculum and have access to a reading library, a large outdoor playground and much more.

"She interacts, she plays, she does a lot of things on her own," Rodriguez said. "She has a lot of opportunities."

Return on investment

Early childcare advocates have long pointed to studies showing that investment early on can have significant returns later in life.

James Heckman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in economics, said that 90 percent of a child's brain development takes place before age 5.

Analyzing life outcomes like health, crime, schooling and the increase in a mother’s income after returning to work, Heckman found a 13 percent return on investment in education before the age of 4.

In a petition to the OPSB, a group of early grade teachers in New Orleans noted that almost half of Louisiana's kindergartners enter school already behind socially and academically, and they blame the slide largely on lack of quality care for infants and toddlers.

"Children who enter school behind are more likely to stay behind," the group said in a letter supporting the call for local investment in preschool seats. "This is a major contributor to the fact that nearly 70 percent of third graders in New Orleans public schools cannot read on grade level."

According to Williams, the investment in early education would also prevent the city from paying so much into the criminal justice system down the line.

That's because those kids would have a better quality of life and more opportunities as they grow, preventing cycles of poverty and incarceration, he said.

"Investing in boys and girls is so much more effective than trying to fix broken men and women," Williams said.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.