Get youngest into preschool

INDIVIDUAL CARE — Thanks to renewed emphasis on preschool training for youngsters from birth to age 3, Louisiana political and education leaders are giving them a higher priority for funding.

Early childhood education has become a high priority for governors, legislators and childcare advocates, but what is it exactly? One definition says it is a broad term used to describe any type of educational program that serves children in their preschool years, before they are old enough to enter kindergarten.

It has been reported that 90 percent of brain development is done by age 5, so the more children are exposed to that early training, the more likely Louisiana is to improve its education rankings. The state also needs to increase its spending on K-12 and higher education, which it did last year after a decade of declining revenues.

The state’s Early Childhood Care and Education Commission said boosting aid to younger children by $86 million per year for 10 years would provide coverage for 173,000 children from birth to age 3.

The state Department of Education reported dismal statistics for that age group, according to The Advocate. A total of 97 percent of infants, 93 percent of 1-year-olds, 90 percent of 2-year-olds and 66 percent of 3-year-olds don’t receive those preschool services today.

In order to work or attend school, low-income families in Louisiana can get financial assistance from the Child Care Assistance Program of the state Department of Education to help them send their children to preschools.

Preschool authorities say many young children begin learning to walk, talk and name colors and shapes at home. When they enter quality preschool programs, they learn the letters of the alphabet, new words, the individual sound in words and early writing skills, and they look at books and listen to stories and become familiar with math and science.

One report said early childhood education allows children the chance to apply what they’ve learned at home in a practical setting and interact with individuals outside their families.

The Advocate wrote about Baton Rouge area legislators getting a close look at what early childhood education is all about. They visited the Southside Child Development Center of Baton Rouge that has operated for 28 years to see what children from 6 weeks to age 5 do all day. .

The center houses 50 to 60 children daily for up to 10 hours a day. Its hours are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Different classrooms house infants, crawlers, children who are walking and 3- and 4-year-olds. Child/teacher ratios range from 4-to-1 to 9-to-1, which is better than state requirements.

Elizabeth Andry, director and owner of the center, said, “Our children move up by development. They don’t move up by age.” She said Southside’s seven teachers work on children meeting milestones for what they should be doing by certain ages.

Teachers undergo 12 hours of professional development and have an associate degree in child development or an alternate certificate in early childhood education. Tuition statewide averages $7,500 per year.

The state has about 1,700 child development centers, according to the Child Care Association of Louisiana. Some 12,000 people statewide work in the centers. About 14,000 families get state assistance, which is down from 40,000 a decade ago.

A family of three in Louisiana can qualify for childcare assistance with an annual income of up to $31,860, which is 158 percent of the poverty level and 53 percent of state median income.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said early childhood education is his No. 1 priority for the upcoming fiscal year, and Republicans also support the program. Lawmakers appropriated $20 million last year, but it primarily replaced an expiring federal grant.

The governor is recommending another $25 million appropriation for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which would reduce the number of children on the state’s waiting list for care and education by about 4,000.

Advocates for early childhood education said it would help trim Louisiana’s high rate of students who enter kindergarten unprepared to learn. Only 43 percent of them are proficient in reading.

Realizing how beneficial early childhood education is to Louisiana’s youngest children, how can legislators not readily find whatever funds are necessary? State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, was on the preschool center tour, and he answered that question.

Bacala said it isn’t whether lawmakers support the state’s youngest learners, but how what they need compares to other educational needs.

Kim Hunter Reed, state commissioner of higher education, said it would take $36 million to boost the average pay of university faculty to the 16-state average set by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Public school teachers got a $1,000 annual pay increase and support workers a $500 increase last year that is costing the state more than 100 million to fund. Teachers are irate that Edwards didn’t propose another increase this year.

Legislators have major education funding issues facing them this year, but early childhood education should definitely continue to be a top priority.

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