While lots of controversial issues remain, child care leaders said they are pleased with the state’s initial outline on how to overhaul Louisiana’s pre-kindergarten system.
“We like it,” said Wyatt Graves, president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana and one of several officials who expressed concerns last month.
Melanie Bronfin, director of the Louisiana Partnership’s Policy Institute, said the new pre-K “framework” spelled out last week by state Superintendent of Education John White showed that he has listened to input from her group and others — another sore subject.
Bronfin said that includes the state’s plan to launch pilot projects next year before the sweeping changes take effect.
“That is huge,” she said.
But officials note that because of the nature of the overhaul, numerous highly charged issues have to be resolved. The list includes:
- How letter grades will be determined for pre-K schools and centers. That’s one of the linchpins of this year’s law sparking the changes.
- How state aid will be parceled out and how long struggling schools will have to improve or face loss of financial assistance.
- How ambitious plans to improve the credentials of pre-K teachers will be financed.
All the activity stems from a new state law, called Act 3, which is aimed at revamping what critics call a pre-K system that features uneven quality, standards and availability.
The aim is to improve kindergarten readiness to 70 percent — it is 54 percent now — and make it easier for parents to pick a program, including a one-stop website.
About 42,000 4-year-olds from low-income families qualify for publicly funded pre-K classes now.
“We don’t educate kids early enough and that sets us back throughout their academic career,” White said.
However, the law left most of the details to the state Department of Education and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state board is set to consider White’s outline at its December meeting.
Pilot projects are set for the 2013-14 school year.
A trial run is scheduled for the 2014-15 school year, and all the changes take effect for 2015-16.
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.
It does not cover sites that get public funds solely for food and nutrition assistance or centers that get a state license but receive no public aid.
The state will establish early learning performance guidelines for those from zero to age 3 and academic standards for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Graves, whose group represents about 600 members, said his and other organizations want a voice when crucial details are worked out, including how letter grades — always a volatile subject — will be assigned to pre-K sites.
“That is the key,” he said. “That is why we want to make sure we have a seat at the table.”
Grades will be based on classroom instruction and progress children are making toward kindergarten.
Grades and demand will also help drive state aid for the programs, which involve a wide array of federal-only, state-only and state and federal funding sources.
Part of the aim, White said, is to “put those programs into one education-making process on how those dollars are allocated.”
Pre-K centers that get low grades will get help, but if they fail to show adequate improvement, they face cutoffs in state aid, possibly after three years.
Bronfin said financial support for pre-K instructors to improve their credentials — one of the key goals in the overhaul — is essential.
“It is not fair to ask teachers to pay for it when many of them earn minimum wage,” she said.
White said he envisions a system in which higher education officials set up a “single path” for pre-K teachers to earn their credentials.
Top-flight pre-K programs and teachers would be eligible for tax credits, but those details are unclear.