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Monday, August 7th, 2023

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


     To get Louisiana off the bottom of the barrel when it comes to educational reform, nothing is more important than developing a preschool program that builds the foundation for young people to learn.  For a number of years, the leading voice on early childhood education was State Representative Steve Carter from Baton Rouge.  Tragically, Steve passed away in 2021 from Covid complications.  To honor his efforts,  the legislature passed into law the Steve Carter Literacy Program, which was to provide for payments of up to $1,000 per student per year for eligible services intended to improve literacy skills.

      But passing legislation is one thing. Getting proper funding for it is another.  After several years of minor financing, this year’s legislature allocated $51 million dollars for this important program.  Unfortunately, these funds will only cover a small number of kids and will supply only one sixth of the funds that are necessary.  There is a need to properly find an additional 130 thousand slots for kids to be in early childhood learning.

     Louisiana ranks next to last for overall child well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2023 Kids Count Data Book, with the state’s ranking being near the bottom for economic well-being, health, and family and community. The 2023 report puts Louisiana at 49th out of all 50 states for overall child well-being, coming ahead of only New Mexico. Louisiana had ranked next-to-last in the 2022 report as well.

     “Expanding access to child care is a uniquely win-win-win policy,” said Jennifer Roberts, CEO of Agenda for Children. “High-quality child care offers lifelong benefits to children, enables parents to work and improve their children’s economic security and strengthens our economy through increased workforce participation. Making child care affordable and accessible for all families will have huge rewards for all Louisianans.”

     For many years, Louisiana has lamented “Thank God for Mississippi.”  This refrain no longer works when  comparing early childhood learning in Mississippi as to Louisiana. The New York Times reported recently that Mississippi “is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings.  Among children in poverty, Mississippi fourth graders now are tied for best performers in the nation in reading tests and ranked second in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”   Why the improvement? The Mississippi legislature undertook a major financial commitment to educate preschool kids. “Mississippi is a huge success, story, and very exciting,” says, David Deming, a Harvard economist and educational expert. “You cannot use poverty as an excuse. That’s the most important lesson.”

     High-quality early care and education, particularly for children below age five is neither accessible nor affordable for many Louisiana families.  That’s why proper funding for pre-K kids is so important.  Yet right now, Louisiana spends less than half of 1% of state dollars on early care and education.  Over $1 billion in this year’s legislative session was allocated for local projects, some considered “pork barrel.” Apparently, adequately funding preschool education was not all that important. In other states like Mississippi, proper funding is extremely important.

     Here’s what Louisiana needs to do. The state should offer high-quality full day programs, with qualified teachers paid at the same rate as elementary school staff members.  Many other states are noticing the Magnolia State’s educational success.   Louisiana should do the same, and not settle for anything less than offering pre-K education to all of our kids. We can talk all we want to about higher education, and. business development opportunities.  But until our kids are better educated and start learning at an early age, the Bayou State will continue to be at the bottom of national rankings.  We need to do better. Much much better.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownla.com. You can also listen to his regular podcast at www.datelinelouisiana.com.

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