Expanding Access to Early Education

It’s great news that the parents of about 4,500 children who have been on a waiting list to receive financial assistance for child care will be rolling off that list. But it highlights an issue which deserves far more attention in Louisiana than it’s been receiving.

Louisiana’s Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, does what its name suggests – provides financial assistance to low-income, working families to help cover the cost of child care. The program has been around for a number of years, but thanks to budget cuts state support for the program has dwindled and so has the number of children served.

It’s great to hear that so many low-income families will now be receiving child care assistance, but as with many things, there’s more to this story. The help is only coming because of a one-time influx of federal dollars specifically targeting programs like CCAP. And while it will help a lot of families, it may only be temporary. Another 2,500 kids still remain on the waiting list, and tens of thousands more at-risk children who aren’t even on the list are also in need of support.

It doesn’t take a lot to figure out this is a big issue for Louisiana.

Twenty-percent of our people live in poverty. For children it’s almost 30-percent. Even for working families, child care is expensive and can rival the cost of college tuition. So, for low-income working families, that’s a problem. For just keeping a job, that’s a problem. And for employers looking for people who can come to work on a regular basis, that’s a problem.

But it doesn’t stop there. We all know that we need to improve education attainment in our state. Science tells us that 90-percent of a child’s brain development happens between birth and age four. Our own data tell us that more than 40-percent of our children enter kindergarten behind and that generally means it’s very difficult for them to ever catch up.

So, if we are serious about improving student outcomes, boosting the workforce pipeline, and addressing all of the negative indicators about social wellbeing in our state, we need to start with early education.

Hopefully a vehicle to do that will be the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission. That group was created by the Legislature this year with the overall charge of developing a vision for the future of early childhood care and education in the state for children from birth to age four.

That makes good sense. We need to look at early education in a holistic fashion. We need to elevate the issue in the eyes of political leaders, policy makers, and the public at large. And we have to create a sense of urgency around it, recognizing that not only do we need to increase access to child care and make it affordable, but also focus on quality to ensure all our kids enter kindergarten and school ready to learn.

Recently we have seen studies from U.S. News & World Report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count initiative, and others that send disturbing signals. They show Louisiana situated last in the nation, or very near the bottom, in things like quality of life and child wellbeing.

Today our momentum is going in the wrong direction. We need to reverse that. An urgent focus on providing broader access to quality early education for our children is the place to start.

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