Trio of pending bills addresses Louisiana’s welter of early-childhood programs

If passed, three bills pending in the state Legislature would complete a three-year overhaul of the state’s muddle of early-childhood programs.

The bills, Senate Bill 533, House Bill 954 and Senate Bill 524, would:

  • Make the Louisiana Department of Education the sole manager of federal and state early-childhood funding.

  • Transfer daycare licensing and regulating authority from the Department of Children and Family Services to the Department of Education.

  • Let the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approve parish-level agencies that would manage common application processes based on preference and availability.

The moves are in line with Act 3 of the 2012 legislative session, which requires that education officials streamline and integrate disparate early-childhood programs, come up with new standards for determining their quality and more effectively inform parents of their options.

Those new standards are already shaping curriculums in 29 pilot programs around the state. The new legislation, if approved, would fund statewide expansion of the pilots by 2015, the target date set by Act 3. Along with licensure and regulation powers, the Department of Education also would get the authority to close daycare centers that aren’t performing up to par.

A percentage of the money education officials manage would also fund “local early-learning coordinators” that would inform families of options and create common application processes, beginning in the 2015-16 school year. Low-income children would receive preference in gaining admission to the programs.

Having the education department manage all the funding would bring some unity to a confusing system, Child Care Association of Louisiana president Alan Young said.

“We need to be under one umbrella,” he said. “We are regulated by alphabet soup.”

In New Orleans, the Recovery School District is partnering with the New Orleans pilot program, the New Orleans Early Education Network, to develop a common enrollment process modeled on the OneApp process for admitting older children to public schools, RSD External Affairs Director Cay Kimbrell wrote in an email to The Lens. OneApp already manages enrollment of 32 pre-K programs for 4-year-olds.

Act 3, like the newly proposed bills, works with a mix of state and federal funding already allocated for expansion of early-childhood options. But some child-care advocates have argued that more funding is needed to make Act 3’s goals a reality.

Another bill, not aligned with Act 3 mandates, attempts to address the funding shortage. Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, would require the Legislature to pump $634 million into early-childhood programs over five years, enough to pay for free early-childhood programs for all 64,000 of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The current LA-4 program pays preschool costs only for low-income families.

Nevers contends the added expense is offset by savings on social costs down the road.

“How can we not afford it? If you look at the cost of not investing in early childhood education, it will probably be 10 times that amount,” he said.

All of the early childhood bills have been referred to the House and Senate education committees. On Wednesday, a committee approved the bill that would make the Department of Education the manager of early childhood funding.

The most substantial amendment was that the bill would create a council to advise the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on early childhood education.

This story was updated after publication with information on what happened to one of the bills in committee on Wednesday. (March 27, 2014)

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