While a plan to revamp Louisiana’s pre-kindergarten classes breezed through the Legislature, hammering out the details is shaping up as a huge, controversial undertaking.
The revamp passed the state Senate 39-0 on April 17 and the Louisiana House 94-0 the day before.
The plan sparked little controversy, especially amid pitched political battles in the Legislature over vouchers and new rules for public school teachers.
However, the law only represents an outline for overhauling what critics call a sprawling, expensive and inefficient system of trying to prepare students for kindergarten and beyond.
Most of the nitty gritty of the new system will be crafted by the state Department of Education and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE.
State Superintendent of Education John White is tentatively set to spell out a “framework” for the changes in a meeting with BESE on Oct. 17.
BESE is supposed to sign off on a plan in December, including a definition of kindergarten readiness, performance targets for children and eventually letter grades for pre-K programs.
The tentative plans are due back in the Legislature by March 1.
Key issues include:
- What sort of accountability system will be used to oversee those who care for children between the ages of zero and 4 years old?
- How will the state balance the calls for top-flight quality with concerns that child care providers will be forced to embrace costly standards?
- Can state school leaders come up with a plan that wins general acceptance from a wide range of education advocacy groups?
There is already sniping over how much public input should go into work by officials of the state Department of Education, the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Children and Family Services.
The Child Care Association of Louisiana, Education’s Next Horizon and the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families are seeking a bigger voice in crafting the overhaul.
Education’s Next Horizon, which calls itself a nonprofit education advocacy group, is preparing to release the results of an online survey of about 500 people on what the new pre-K classes should look like.
Another group, Stand for Children, is about to launch a similar survey.
Louisiana has half a dozen publicly-funded pre-K programs with varying costs, standards and quality.
The aim of the new law is to upgrade the programs, especially since officials say that barely half the students who start kindergarten are prepared to tackle numbers, letters and the like.
Melanie Bronfin, director of the Louisiana Partnership’s Policy Institute, said her group favors using Louisiana’s Quality Counts as the cornerstone for holding child care providers accountable.
The state is one of just 15 with such a system, officials said, and it provides monitoring, steps to improve the quality of early childhood programs and helpful guides for parents.
But only 53 percent of the state’s top child care providers are part of the voluntary system.
“It is expensive,” Bronfin noted.
The state has about 12,700 child care businesses employing about 22,000 workers and serves about 149,000 children, according to Bronfin’s group.
Bronfin’s group calls itself an independent source of data on young children for policymakers.
John Warner Smith, chief executive officer for Education Next’s Horizon, said one issue is how to balance the need for quality standards with what child care providers can afford.
“That is going to be a big challenge on child care facilities and public programs,” Smith said.
“We have really got to give adequate consideration of cost impact on providers, time and resources to train and professional development,” he said.
The new pre-K network is supposed to be in place for the 2015-16 school year.
But both Smith’s and Bronfin’s groups are asking state officials to phase-in the changes through pilot projects because of the magnitude of the overhaul.
“It is a major undertaking, a major redesign,” Smith said.