Overall, this doesn’t look like a legislative session of big new policy proposals, but there are some good ideas emerging and efforts to make meaningful investments in important areas. One that’s getting some positive attention is early education.
In the first week of the session lawmakers in the Senate advanced a bill to make permanent the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission which is set to terminate on July 1. Extending the life of a government commission is not usually a big deal, but in this case it does speak to the level of importance a growing number of legislators are seeing in early education.
This commission, in particular, has been unafraid to tell policy makers things they don’t necessarily want to hear about the challenges and true cost of providing quality child care to children in need. For Louisiana that comes to about $115 million a year over the next 10 years to expand access to 173,000 low-income children from birth to age three.
Even with the large amounts of federal and state dollars available to the Legislature this year, the governor’s executive budget doesn’t go quite that far, but it does recommend about $93 million for early education. Most of that is one-time money, but it includes almost $20 million to strengthen the state’s LA 4 program for four-year-olds and another $25 million to expand access to quality child care for about 1,600 low-income children.
It would also put $50 million in a special incentive fund that local communities can draw on with matching dollars to further expand access. That effort got a boost when a House committee approved legislation to give many local governments authority to levy a limited property tax to support early childhood educational programs in their areas. Local participation is seen as key to helping low-income kids get the early education opportunities they need.
There is one bold new proposal that’s been introduced on early education, and it comes from Sen. Cleo Fields who last year passed legislation to make kindergarten for five-year-olds mandatory. This time he wants to require all schools that have a kindergarten to offer pre-k for children beginning at age three. That one will likely come with a high price tag and will be difficult to pass, but it does serve to advance the discussion about the importance of early education. That alone is a positive thing.
There is ample research, including a recent study by CABL of more than 40,000 Louisiana students, showing early education can make a positive difference in the educational trajectory of children. Louisiana is a low education attainment state with a high rate of poverty. We need to reverse the numbers in both of those categories.
It’s hard to see that happening if we don’t make significant investments on an ongoing basis to educate and care for our youngest learners. It is CABL’s hope that this session will prove to be a positive step in that direction.