Federal pre-K aid sought

More than half a dozen groups are asking Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White to apply for up to $45 million in federal “Race to the Top” dollars to aid Louisiana’s overhaul of pre-kindergarten classes.

“Superintendent White does an excellent job of articulating these needs, but nobody is talking about where the funding is going to come from,” said John Warner Smith, chief executive officer of Education’s Next Horizon, one of the organizations behind the push.

“We should at least apply,” Smith added.

Asked if the governor would comment, his office issued a prepared statement from Jindal that said: “The Department of Education is reviewing the application. ... We will not apply for any funding that comes with strings attached or brings more federal involvement in our education system.”

A department official said the grants cannot be used for additional pre-K classes.

The competition for federal dollars, as was done previously, is being run by the U.S. Department of Education and is called “Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge.”

States have until Oct. 16 to apply. Winners will be announced in December.

While grant amounts vary, Louisiana is one of 10 states eligible for up to $45 million over four years.

White’s office said three to eight states of 36 eligible will receive grants.

The aim of the aid, federal officials said, is to improve the quality of early learning and close the achievement gap for children with high needs.

The state is in the early stages of overhauling its pre-K system, which was sparked by a 2012 state law.

Critics contend the existing setup is plagued by uneven quality, access and standards.

White often says only 54 percent of children in Louisiana enter kindergarten ready to learn.

In their letter, Smith’s group and others said Jindal and White’s vision for a new pre-K system would be strengthened by $45 million in federal aid.

Smith said Monday that the federal money could help finance professional development of pre-K teachers, among other areas.

Groups included on the request include Education’s Next Horizon, United Way of Southeast Louisiana and Louisiana Partnership for Children & Families.

Smith said two other United Way organizations, the Childhood and Family Learning Foundation of New Orleans and the Louisiana Association for the Education of Young Children, are behind the request.

The Child Care Association of Louisiana also favors an application.

Through a spokeswoman, White declined comment Monday.

In a prepared statement, Barry Landry, a spokesman for the department, said the application requires states to develop data systems and to add central oversight staff.

Louisiana has had limited success in three previous Race to the Top applications.

In March 2010, the state finished 11th out of 16, and out of the running, for the first wave of special federal aid.

Later that year, the state failed in its second bid, which offered up to $175 million.

In 2011, the state landed $17.4 million.

Thirteen groups in 15 parishes are running pilot projects as part of the plan to revamp the state’s pre-K system.

That number may be doubled next year, White said last week.