The New Orleans City Council is poised to propose a new property tax dedicated to funding high-quality preschool seats. The millage, announced by Council President Helena Moreno, would be considered by New Orleans voters in the city’s April election and could directly fund roughly 1,500 early childhood seats, a vast expansion of the city’s current program.
“For years, this Council has fought for funding for Early Childhood Education because we know that this essential building block is out of reach for too many of our City’s children,” Moreno said in a released statement. “Studies conclusively show that Early Childhood education sets children on the path to greater academic and social success. We want to eliminate the financial barriers to Early Childhood Education, and this millage is a strong step in that direction.”
The council estimates the new millage would bring in about $21 million, Hamilton Simons-Jones — a government and nonprofit consultant who worked with a campaign for an unsuccessful 2020 millage proposal that was backed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell — said in an interview. “Right now, the program is funded at $3 million.”
“That would be a significant multiplier. And that’s before we count a state match potential,” Simons-Jones said.
“It’s somewhere around 1,500 seats it could fund — and the state match could potentially fund another 1,500,” Simons-Jones said. “We know some investments will also need to be made in expanding capacity. There’s not 1,500 open seats right now.”
Simons-Jones said funded preschool seats for children age three or under have already expanded somewhat through a federal Preschool Development Grant that runs through the state.
“That’s now serving several hundred students [statewide],” Simons-Jones said, representing only a very small number of children three and under from low-income families. The city of New Orleans has for several years tried to provide some additional funding for very young children through a program called City Seats, but most available public dollars are earmarked for pre-K for three- and four-year-olds.
“Part of the challenge of the New Orleans City Seats program, there’s not a lot of funding for children under age 3.”
Agenda for Children CEO Jen Roberts seconded the 1,500 seat estimate the council’s proposed millage would create, noting it also contains resources for wrap-around services, like counseling and caseworker support for each family. Agenda for Children has worked closely with the city’s City Seats program, which started in 2018.
City involvement in early childhood supports
The New Orleans city government began directly funding early childhood education in 2018 with a $750,000 pilot program. The city doubled that investment to $1.5 million in 2019, and doubled it again in 2020 to reach $3 million. Those funds are used to pay the tuition costs for private early childhood education programs for kids who can’t afford them.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic began, causing a huge economic downturn that impacted businesses, including preschool and daycare centers.
Simons-Jones said some of the available early childhood seats in the area have likely been lost during the upheaval of the pandemic.
“We have [lost seats in the city],” he said. Advocacy groups could likely “tell you how many centers have closed in the last few years but we know it’s been an adverse impact for sure.”
The pandemic also led to some city budget cuts.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said that it would have to cut its investment in early childhood education back to $1.5 million unless voters approved a set of ballot initiatives that would rearrange a group of existing property taxes.
The plan would have cut roughly 40 percent of the New Orleans Public Library budget and redistributed those funds to several other uses, including early childhood education. Under the plan, the city would have taken $1.5 million from the library’s budget to replace the $1.5 million that the Cantrell administration pulled from early childhood education in the initial 2021 budget.
The plan would have only maintained early childhood education spending at $3 million, while eviscerating the library, an institution that many see as a vital resource for literacy and child development. (Simons-Jones, the consultant, was involved in the campaign supporting the proposal, as part of a group called Yes For Children’s Success.)
Residents soundly rejected all three ballot measures that made up Cantrell’s plan during the December 2020 election.
Prior to the election, Cantrell said that if her proposal failed, there simply wouldn’t be any money to restore early childhood education from $1.5 million back to $3 million in 2021. However, after her proposal failed, the city did end up restoring the full $3 million.
The $3 million a year the city currently spends doesn’t come close to filling the need. The city has said that there are roughly 7,000 at-risk kids in New Orleans in need of publicly funded early childhood education. The current $3 million in funding can only pay for 150 kids.
Annual tuition costs for one of these private programs is about $15,000 per year. It would therefore take $105 million in annual funding to pay for all those kids.
The new property tax is expected to bring in $21 million. That’s still too small to fill the entire need, but it’s still seven times larger than the current city investment, and proponents say it could pave the way for a more robust program.
Earlier this year, NOLA Public Schools officials had to convince council members to maintain $1.5 million in special Harrah’s Fund money to three specialized district programs rather than move the funding to other city priorities, including early childhood education.
Councilmembers, focusing on the district’s reserve budget, told district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. not to count on the money next year. While a new millage would not directly compete with that Harrah’s Funding, if the council is focused on expanding early childhood seats even further the two could come into competition again.
District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the Orleans Parish School Board had not been asked to take a position on the proposed millage. In the past, the district has rebuffed requests to provide early childhood education funding to a city program, largely based on the fact that K-12 funding is specifically allocated by the state and federal for school-aged children.
School board members have generally supported expanded early childhood education but say they can’t fund it with K-12 dollars.
“High-quality early childhood education has shown to produce significant benefits that put students on track for success in school,” Alfonzo wrote. “NOLA Public Schools supports effective programs to extend early childhood education opportunities to as many children as possible in our community.”
The district’s only direct role in early childhood education is that they run the centralized enrollment system that helps place students in early childhood programs. Their charter schools do supervise some pre-k4 classes, for four-year-olds.
Demand is increasing for pre-kindergarten seats for four-year-olds, which are partially funded by state programs and can be housed in schools, district officials said at the board’s meeting this month.
Agenda for Children is the fiscal lead for pre-k 4 seats, district Chief Student and School Support Officer Shayla Guidry informed the board.
“We are the enrollment lead,” Guidry said, noting they also help coordinate Louisiana Department of Education funding requests.
“About 50 percent of our programs are requesting additional pre-k seats. That is very exciting,” Guidry said.
Board member Katie Baudouin asked what was keeping the district from expanding those seats.
“Are these requests based on available funding?” Baudouin asked.
“Yes. That’s my understanding,” Guidry said.
Lens Reporter Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this story.