Panel favors pre-K overhaul

Despite concerns about adequate funding, a committee of Louisiana’s top school board Tuesday approved plans to overhaul the state’s often-criticized pre-kindergarten system.

The plan, which sparked mostly positive comments from child-care leaders, was endorsed by a committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education without dissent.

Most of the full board sat in on the meeting, which means that final approval on Wednesday is all but certain. The plan that won approval is aimed at revamping what critics call a pre-K system that features uneven quality, standards and availability.

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

Pre-K centers and schools will get letter grades, and state aid will be linked to how the centers perform.

Pilot projects are set for the 2013-14 school year.

All the changes take effect for 2015-16.

But several officials questioned how the state can upgrade standards for pre-K centers without additional funding, which is a major problem amid state budget problems.

BESE President Penny Dastugue, of Mandeville, said that, if the overhaul is done right, the issue of additional funds has to be raised with the Legislature “when the state can do that.”

Monica Candal, policy and data analyst for Stand for Children, said the plan represents a strong framework to revamp pre-K classes.

“This is the first of its kind in the country,” Candal said.

Melanie Bronfin, director of the Louisiana Partnership’s Policy Institute, said her group is pleased with plans to phase in the changes.

“We are certainly headed in the right direction,” Bronfin said.

Among the key concerns, she said, is to ensure that child-care groups have a say in how details of the overhaul are implemented.

Ensuring access to top-flight programs for children from low-income families is another priority, witnesses said.

The pre-K changes stem from a law enacted earlier this year.

The legislation left details of the overhaul to the state Department of Education and BESE.

State Superintendent of Education John White said that, of 44,000 low-income 4-year-olds, about 42,000 are served by public pre-K programs.

However, the quality, costs and access to programs varies widely.

One aim of the law is to improve kindergarten readiness, which is 54 percent now and which state officials hope to get to 70 percent.

The new rules will apply to early childhood programs serving children from birth to age 5 that receive state or federal dollars.

The list includes pre-K classes in public schools, LA4, Head Start, Early Head Start and Early Steps, among others.