Bills to revamp early childhood education advance

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Proposals to tie public funding to student performance and issue letter grades to Louisiana's public and

private early childhood education programs are finding easy passage through the Legislature.

Two Senate bills are the cornerstones of Gov. Bobby Jindal's attempt to restructure early childhood education and to create

uniform standards for kindergarten readiness.

They have cleared the Senate with very little discussion and no objections from lawmakers. They aren't expected to run into

trouble in the House.

The bills, by Sens. Conrad Appel and Mike Walsworth, are enabling legislation for Act 3, a structural framework approved by

lawmakers last year.

Public and private programs receive $1.4 billion a year in federal and state money to educate students from birth to 5 years

old. Jindal wants to bring some academic uniformity to those providers and to give parents a report card on those efforts.

State education officials have said that just over half of Louisiana youngsters arrive in kindergarten prepared to handle

the curriculum and that the state ranks 49th in the nation for its early childhood education.

"This bill seeks to get children ready for

kindergarten. Period," said Appel, R-Metairie. "For those children that

we can

affect, we've got to get them ready for kindergarten. We cannot

ignore children, put them in play school and assume they will

come out ready to go to school and achieve success."

Appel's proposal calls for uniform standards

for kindergarten readiness and performance targets that 3- and

4-year-old students

would have to meet or their schools would be stripped of public

funding. The exact targets and measurements are still being

determined.

If both measures pass, the full overhaul of

the early childhood system would not be implemented for another two

years. However,

the state education department has allocated $2.6 million for a

15-parish early childhood pilot program to start this fall.

The pilot, which is expected to include 23,000 students, will be used to help create standards for measuring programs and

assigning letter grades.

Appel's bill would create a coordinating clearinghouse for all service providers and name the state Board of Elementary and

Secondary Education as overseer. Currently, early childhood programs fall under several state departments.

It also would require the education

department to establish and implement common standards for kindergarten

readiness, assessment

and accountability, called the Tiered Kindergarten Readiness

Improvement System.

Walsworth's bill would set new licensing guidelines and definitions for daycare centers and facilities. Part of the licensing

change would categorize childcare centers into four types.

Type III centers would have to meet the performance and academic standards set by the network. Centers would have the ability

to opt out of the grading program, but they would lose all public funding, except money used for a food program.

"For this state to move forward, we have to do something about early childhood education," said Walsworth, R-West Monroe.

Walsworth said he has spent months working with childcare providers to make sure they are on-board.

"I think we got most of them — maybe not totally happy, but I think they've appreciated the level of conversation we've had

with them," he said.

Some early childhood care advocates praised the restructuring as a modernization of the industry that will help improve student

learning and provide additional resources.

"We applaud the recognition of the critical

importance of early childhood care and education, and of the need to

bring together

the diverse early childhood programs in our state into one

integrated system in a thoughtful way," said Melanie Bronfin, director

of The Policy Institute at the Louisiana Partnership for Children

and Families, a non-profit research center in New Orleans.

But there is some apprehension.

Some centers may be closer to meeting state standards, while others may take longer to address short-comings, said Alan Young,

legislative chair with the Childcare Association of Louisiana, which supports the initiative.

"We think this is a very positive step forward," Young said. "There are going to be some painful moments, but we think these

are positive steps in the right direction."