Early childhood education urged in La.

A Tulane University professor and an LSU professor tag teamed Wednesday to make the case for expanding early childhood education and assistance in Louisiana.

They discussed a 2012 report, “Early Childhood Risk and Reach in Louisiana,” that they completed together. It looks at contributors to early childhood success, how many children are suffering economic, health, and education risks in the state’s 64 parishes, and analyzes existing programs to address problems.

Geoff Nagle an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Tulane’s School of Medicine, summarized the extensive research on the importance of the first years of life, the challenges too many children face and the benefits to society of improving lives.

At one point Nagle displayed on an overhead screen one number, 1,826, and asked what it meant.

“That’s the number of days til l the fifth birthday,” he said. “That’s our time to build the fundamentals, the strong base that children need.”

The second speaker, Kirby Goidel, is a professor of political science and mass communication at LSU and the director of the university’s Public Policy Research Lab.

Goidel laid out a series of public opinion polls showing wide public support in Louisiana for expanding early childhood programs, even if it meant budget cuts elsewhere or tax increases. He showed that the support is strong across the political spectrum.

“Why doesn’t overwhelming public support for early childhood translate into public policy?” Goidel asked.

Nagle said that over the past few years, spending on children in Louisiana has actually decreased and the portion devoted to early childhood education has decreased at even faster rate.

Nagle also is director of Tulane’s Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health, and the state director of BrightStart, Louisiana’s Early Childhood Advisory Council.

Goidel and Nagle spoke at Boudreaux’s as part of the Academic Distinction Fund’s Distinguished Speaker Series, which is focused heavily on early childhood education. ExxonMobil is the lead sponsor of the speaker series.

Nagle talked about a variety of reasons the early years of life are so important.

“Things that happen to you early in life really get under your skin, and they are going to have a big biological impact on the rest of your life,” he said.

Childhood is a confusing time as it as, Nagle said, likening a child to the work of an air-traffic controller.

“There’s so much going on out there. You think you know the rules of the game, but it’s constantly changing,” he said.

When children suffer stress, due to “poverty, violence in the home, mental health, substance abuse, all of the above,” their bodies undergo increases in the hormone cortisol, Nagle said. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, reduces cell connections, prompts anxious behavior and impairs memory, selective attention and thinking, he said.

Damage to children’s attentiveness — which Nagle called “executive function and self-regulation” — is a huge contributor to future problems, he said. He cited a study suggesting damage to children’s attentiveness has a bigger correlation to problems in adulthood than aggressive behavior, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, or gender.

Nagle said the case is so strong that the burden of proof should not be on supporters of expanding early childhood but on those who would spend public dollars for other purposes. He noted that in 2010, Louisiana paid out $170 million more that it took in to provide tax credits for the movie industry.

“What could that do if that $170 million was invested in early education? A heck of a lot,” Nagle said.

Looking at public opinion polls, Goidel said the downturn in the economy has raised it and jobs as the top issues for Louisianians, but concerns about education are growing. He said supporters of expanding early childhood support need to get more organized and to connect it to the economy and other concerns.

Nagle said that supporters need to take a broad view of early childhood, including things like parental education and medical assistance. He said more issues exist than just prekindergarten and Louisiana’s LA 4 program for four year olds and too many politicians forget that.