State to use recovery money for pre-K program

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration wants to shift $20 million in hurricane recovery dollars for hurricanes

Gustav and Ike to fill in budget gaps in the state's free preschool program for at-risk students.

The proposal, which requires approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was posted this week for

public comment.

The hurricane recovery dollars were included in the $75 million annual budget for the Cecil J. Picard LA4 Early Childhood

Program for the fiscal year that began July 1, a budget approved by lawmakers in June.

Preschool access won't expand with the money. The dollars will plug part of a budget hole created when federal stimulus funding

that had been used for the program disappeared.

Jindal's chief budget adviser, Commissioner

of Administration Paul Rainwater, said the spending will help people

impacted

by the storms by offering pre-kindergarten education to

4-year-olds in low- to moderate-income families in hurricane-damaged

parishes.

"This gives us the opportunity to use this funding in a very meaningful way. It helps the families that it was meant to help,"

Rainwater said.

The state pays the costs for 16,000 4-year-olds to enroll in the pre-K program, according to Barry Landry, spokesman for the

state education department. The hurricane recovery money would pay for at-risk students from 20 parishes that were damaged

by Gustav and Ike, according to the proposal, which will be submitted to HUD in October.

A state lawmaker who has regularly pushed for hurricane rebuilding efforts questions whether that's an appropriate use of

dollars set aside by the federal government for recovery.

Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, whose district was hit by both 2008 hurricanes, said while she supports the LA4 program,

she thinks the education department should look elsewhere for funding.

She said the Gustav and Ike recovery money should be spent to help people elevate their homes and make improvements to guard

against future storms.

"I really believe if we don't start using

the money properly, we'll continue to have people unprotected from

storms," she

said. "There are still unmet needs in the hurricane-related

parishes. We still have hundreds of people, homeowners, that need

to elevate their homes."

Louisiana received a more than $1 billion federal recovery block grant after hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck the state in

September 2008, causing widespread wind and water damage.

The $20 million to be shifted to the pre-K

program had been slated to help the state pay for its share of the costs

for repairing

damage to public buildings and facilities.

Rainwater said the federal government picked

up a larger portion of the costs than initially estimated, and the

state's remaining

expenses were covered through insurance proceeds.

He said the preschool program helps parents

who lost jobs or income because of Gustav and Ike. He said without the

program,

parents would either have to find child care or may be unable to

work because they would have to stay home with their children.

"If this program were to cease or drastically reduce operation, there would be thousands of households in the impacted areas

who would either have to absorb these burdensome child care costs or, worse, have to drop out of the workforce," says the

proposal to be submitted to HUD.