By David Gray
The state Legislature raised the standards for high-quality early childhood education programs when it passed Act 3 in 2012. But lawmakers did not authorize new funding to help centers meet the standards. Some parents are at risk of facing higher tuition costs next year, which they might not be able to afford without additional financial support for low-income and at-risk children.
The first five years of a child’s life are critical to developing social, academic and cognitive foundations. As a result, high-quality early childhood education increases the likelihood that a child will graduate from college and get a good-paying job.
This is a key reason why high-quality early childhood education is one of the best investments the state can make. Money invested at the start of a child’s life benefit everyone in society by lowering dropout rates, reducing crime and increasing long-term economic growth. Many studies over the years have shown that every public dollar invested in young children – particularly kids from disadvantaged backgrounds – pay huge dividends down the line.
But high-quality early childhood education isn’t cheap. In fact, the cost of providing full-time child-care in Louisiana is almost as much as tuition at a state university, and consumes nearly 30 percent of a single mother’s income. Unfortunately, Louisiana has been cutting its investments in early childhood education in recent years, with funding for the Child Care Assistance Program, for example, down 58 percent since 2009 — even as the high “return on investment” for early childhood education becomes clearer.
Louisiana has long lacked a coordinated system of early childhood education. Parents above a certain income level generally must pay for early childhood education on their own. For poor families, Louisiana uses a blend of federal and state dollars to subsidize the costs of early childhood education through four major programs that are funded at very different levels.
To strengthen Louisiana’s fragmented early childhood programs, in 2012, the state Legislature passed a law as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education overhaul that will bring all publically funded early childhood education providers under a new accountability system by the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. Among other things, Act 3 establishes uniform standards across providers and aligns public funding with providers’ performance.
While this new law is easily the least controversial of the governor’s 2012 education overhaul (both Act 1 and Act 2 are facing legal challenges) it does contain at least one significant flaw: there is no new funding to help providers meet the higher standards. This poses a great challenge for many — particularly because the state is already underfunding early childhood education for many low-income and at-risk children.