State lawmakers advance early childhood education bills

“For those children that we can affect, we’ve got to get them ready for kindergarten. We cannot ignore children, put them in play school and assume they will come out ready to go to school and achieve success.” Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie

Proposals to tie public funding to student performance and issue letter grades to Louisiana’s public and private early childhood education programs are finding easy passage through the Legislature.

Two Senate bills are the cornerstones of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s attempt to restructure early childhood education and to create uniform standards for kindergarten readiness.

They have cleared the Senate with very little discussion and no objections from lawmakers. They aren’t expected to run into trouble in the House.

The bills, by Sens. Conrad Appel and Mike Walsworth, are enabling legislation for Act 3, a structural framework approved by lawmakers last year.

Public and private programs receive $1.4 billion a year in federal and state money to educate students from birth to 5 years old.

Jindal wants to bring some academic uniformity to those providers and to give parents a report card on those efforts.

State education officials have said that just over half of Louisiana youngsters arrive in kindergarten prepared to handle the curriculum and that the state ranks 49th in the nation for its early childhood education.

“This bill seeks to get children ready for kindergarten. Period,” Appel, R-Metairie, said. “For those children that we can affect, we’ve got to get them ready for kindergarten. We cannot ignore children, put them in play school and assume they will come out ready to go to school and achieve success.”

Appel’s proposal calls for uniform standards for kindergarten readiness and performance targets that 3- and 4-year-old students would have to meet or their schools would be stripped of public funding. The exact targets and measurements are still being determined.

If both measures pass, the full overhaul of the early childhood system would not be implemented for another two years.

However, the state education department has allocated $2.6 million for a 15-parish early childhood pilot program to start this fall.

The pilot, which is expected to include 23,000 students, will be used to help create standards for measuring programs and assigning letter grades.

Appel’s bill would create a coordinating clearinghouse for all service providers and name the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as overseer. Currently, early childhood programs fall under several state departments.

It also would require the education department to establish and implement common standards for kindergarten readiness, assessment and accountability, called the Tiered Kindergarten Readiness Improvement System.

Walsworth’s bill would set new licensing guidelines and definitions for day care centers and facilities. Part of the licensing change would categorize child care centers into four types.

Type III centers would have to meet the performance and academic standards set by the network. Centers would have the ability to opt out of the grading program, but they would lose all public funding, except money used for a food program.

“For this state to move forward, we have to do something about early childhood education,” Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said.

Walsworth said he has spent months working with child care providers to make sure they are on-board.

“I think we got most of them — maybe not totally happy, but I think they’ve appreciated the level of conversation we’ve had with them,” he said.

Some early childhood care advocates praised the restructuring as a modernization of the industry that will help improve student learning and provide additional resources.

“We applaud the recognition of the critical importance of early childhood care and education and of the need to bring together the diverse early childhood programs in our state into one integrated system in a thoughtful way,” said Melanie Bronfin, director of The Policy Institute at the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, a nonprofit research center in New Orleans.

But there is some apprehension.

Some centers may be closer to meeting state standards, while others may take longer to address shortcomings, said Alan Young, legislative chair with the Childcare Association of Louisiana, which supports the initiative.

“We think this is a very positive step forward,” Young said. “There are going to be some painful moments, but we think these are positive steps in the right direction.”

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Senate bills 130 and 222 can be found at www.legis.la.gov.