Advocates: Pre-K overhaul faces funding threat

A lack of money is threatening the Jindal administration’s highly touted overhaul of Louisiana’s fractured prekindergarten system, child care advocates say.

“If you are not funding at a level to provide quality, then how are you going to get it?” asked Melanie Bronfin, director of the Policy Institute with the Louisiana Partnership for Children & Families in New Orleans.

Charmaine Caccioppi, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, said the law passed to overhaul the system includes excellent goals.

“But we just can’t implement higher standards without understanding that there is a cost associated with that,” said Caccioppi, whose organization covers Orleans, St. Tammany and five other parishes.

State Superintendent of Education John White said improvements are possible even without a major infusion of new dollars.

The plan under scrutiny is the Louisiana Early Childhood Education Act, which was part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping education agenda that won approval from the Legislature two years ago.

The law is aimed at repairing a publicly funded system beset with uneven quality, standards and availability.

Nearly half of students who start kindergarten in Louisiana require intensive literacy help, officials said.

The state has nearly 212,000 children from infants to 4-year-olds from impoverished backgrounds, according to state figures.

While 87 percent of those 4-year-olds are in publicly funded classes about 38,000 children there are huge differences in quality and standards.

About 150,000 at-risk children are not getting publicly funded child care or education services.

The measure, called Act 3, required the state to set up an early childhood network that encompasses child care, Head Start, pre-K classes in public schools and private schools that get public funds for pre-K classes.

The state will establish early-learning performance guidelines for children from infants to age 3 and academic standards for 3- and 4-year-olds.

However, critics say the money problem is twofold. First, the law did not include dollars to improve the state’s pre-K system, which is one reason the measure breezed through the Legislature.

In addition, critics say the state’s push for improvements is being hindered by a 58 percent funding cut in the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for pre-K and child care while they are at school, working or undergoing training.

The money, which is overseen by the state Department of Children and Family Services, comes from a federal grant with state discretion on how it is spent.

Suzy Sonnier, secretary for the agency, said in a brief interview and a prepared statement that the drop in Child Care Assistance Program money stems mostly from a reduction in federal aid. Because of the 2012 law, the system is being streamlined to improve quality for parents and children, Sonnier said.

John Warner Smith, chief executive officer of Louisiana’s Next Horizon, said the 2012 state law was a positive step.

“We have reformed this system,” Smith said. “But we agree with the partnership that it will all be for naught if we don’t increase funding, particularly those drastic cuts in the Child Care Assistance Program in the past five years.”

Those reductions in spending mean that the list of children served is down by more than 50 percent over five years, according to Bronfin’s group.

She said that will make it harder for families to pay for the improved, and likely more expensive, child care and pre-K classes.

Tuition is expected to rise because pre-K and child care centers will have to boost spending to meet the new standards, including teacher training.

Those centers will then be subject to state scrutiny, including report cards to aid parents shopping for the best option.

But Bronfin and others, who have been heavily involved in the initial rollout of the new rules, say it is unrealistic to expect better-trained teachers, better facilities and more oversight without additional spending.

“Our fear is the result will be that, due to Act 3, high-quality early care and education options will be less available because it will cause the costs per child to rise, but the public funding per child is not increasing for child care assistance,” she said in an email.

Alan Young, president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, said overhauling the state’s pre-K setup will take time, including addressing disparities in funding levels and other issues.

“If we get going too fast, we could create some unintended problems in the process,” Young said. “But we all agree there needs to be more money.”

State officials said in 2012 that spending totaled $346 million for seven state and federal pre-K programs.

Aid for 4-year-olds ranges from $1,750 to $5,610, depending on the program, according to Bronfin’s group.

Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans said in a prepared statement that, while Act 3 addresses quality child care and kindergarten readiness, “it does not address the inequities of funding across the programs.”

White said funding for early childhood education programs is generally up to the Legislature.

“We can make better use of the dollars that we have today in order to provide higher levels of quality service,” he said.

Pilot projects on how the new pre-K landscape will work are underway in the current school year in Orleans, Ascension, West Baton Rouge and 12 other parishes. About 15 more are set to join the list this year.

The revamped pre-K system takes effect statewide for the 2015-16 school year.