By Sheridan Wall and Hunter Lovell, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has touted education as one of his priorities this legislative session, announced his plan on Tuesday to raise early childhood education funding to $18 million.
“We wouldn’t be here today talking about increasing our investment in early childhood education had we not fixed our budget problems,” Edwards told early childhood education advocates at a Capitol lunch event. “We’re just in a much better place today,” he added.
“And I guess you always want to strike while the iron is hot. The iron is hot,” Edwards said, referring to the state’s stabilized budget. After much wrangling, the Louisiana Legislature voted to extend a portion of the sales tax to avoid the fiscal cliff in 2018.
The Senate Finance Committee would have to adopt Edwards’ proposal as an amendment to the budget proposed by House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.
Henry’s budget also includes a $1,200 pay raise for teachers and $600 pay raise for support staff but does not fully fund the state school board’s proposed funding formula. The formula proposed by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education includes pay raises of $1,000 for teachers and $500 for support employees plus an additional $39 million in discretionary funding.
Lawmakers can accept or reject BESE’s funding formula, but they cannot alter it. The state would continue to use the current formula, which does not include teacher and support employee raises, if BESE and the Legislature cannot agree. Funding could still be appropriated for teacher and support worker raises, but these pay increases would not be permanent.
Edwards said this additional funding could open about 1,100 spots in early childhood care facilities across Louisiana. The current waitlist for the state’s child care assistance program–which many low-income families depend on–is about 5,000 names long.
State Superintendent John White, who supports funding for early childhood education, called the long waitlist “morally abhorrent” at the lunch event Tuesday.
Early childhood education programs in the state have worked to improve their quality of care, but there is not “a long-term plan in Louisiana for the volume at which we do it,” White said in an interview. “We need a long-term plan to invest,” he added.
White, who was appointed by former Gov. Bobby Jindal and has been at odds with the current governor, also criticized Edwards’ budget proposal in February for its failure to fund early childhood education in the wake of expiring federal grants. Edwards’ new $18 million early childhood education proposal includes the $8.8 million needed to replace these grants.
White is not Edwards’ only critic on early childhood education funding. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, one of Edwards’ opponents in this year’s gubernatorial race, tweeted on Tuesday that Edwards has “completely neglected” early childhood education until this election year.
Keith Liederman, the CEO at Kingsley House, an early childhood care center in New Orleans, said that access to early childcare could be the “difference maker” in improving the quality of life for families in the state.
“We have so much potential in our state that’s unrealized,” Liederman said after the governor’s lunch event. “It’s not just early care by itself that’s the answer, we have to have comprehensive care for everybody in our community,” he commented after the event.
Liederman said that $31 million would be the “magic number” that would bring the state’s early childhood education system back to its solid footing, before sweeping budget cuts started 10 years ago.
Education funding and investments in the future of Louisiana children and students continue to be on the drawing board of ideas during this legislative session.
Student leaders with the LA Youth Platform introduced their policy plans at the State Capitol on Tuesday, including their support for funding early childhood education.
Sarah Procopio, the director of the LA Youth Platform, said that people around the state agree that better education is the “key to success” in Louisiana.
“But if you mean that,” Procopio said, “you have to put your money where your mouth is, and I think that starts with investing in early childhood education and really making it a priority.”
Members of the LA Youth Platform also talked to lawmakers about the need to make Louisiana a more attractive place for young people to work and live. The group’s policy recommendations include increasing accessibility to vocational and technical education programs.
Members of the House Education Committee on Tuesday also discussed pathways to integrate vocational training and work experience into K-12 and post-secondary education institutions on Tuesday, as well as teacher and administrator evaluations.