BY WILL SENTELL | firstname.lastname@example.org
Published May 21, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Updated May 21, 2019 at 4:03 pm
Amid criticism, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he will push to increase spending for early childhood education so that a key waiting list for services can be reduced.
Edwards made the announcement during a luncheon that was part of Early Education Day at the State Capitol, which attracted about 120 advocates.
Under current budget plans, a waiting list of around 5,500 children seeking early childhood services would be trimmed by 400.
The governor said he wants the Legislature to allocate another $4.3 million, which would trim the waiting list by about 1,100 children, or 700 more.
Edwards and legislative leaders have come under fire for what backers see as paltry financing plans for early childhood services under the $30 billion House-passed budget, which is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.
Critics contend the governor and others have failed to prioritize aid for children from birth to age 3, which they say can better prepare children for kindergarten and reduce chances for education problems when they are older.
The key target of advocates is the Child Care Assistance Program.
It provides low-income families with state assistance so their children can attend care centers while they work, undergo job training or attend school.
It has a waiting list of 5,520 children, including 2,250 in families who are authorized for services but have shied away from doing so because state reimbursement rates are so low.
Early childhood education supporters are asking for another $31 million for the budget year that begins July 1, which is unlikely.
The House-passed budget includes $4.6 million for the program, including 400 new slots and higher reimbursement rates to enroll in the services.
Edwards said that, after conversations on Monday, his administration will ask the Senate Finance Committee to add another $4.3 million to open additional slots.
"The benefits have been proven over and over again," Edwards said.
He said studies show that up to 90% of brain development takes place before the age of 5.
"We have to do what we can on the front end," Edwards said.
Melanie Bronfin, policy director for the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said Tuesday her group is grateful for the governor's leadership and additional funding.
"However, 4,400 children whose parents are working or in school still desperately need help accessing quality, reliable care," Bronfin said in a statement.
State Superintendent of Education John White, who for months has criticized the lack of early childhood dollars in the governor's budget blueprint, said the 5,000-plus waiting list is a "morally abhorrent situation that must change now."
Advocates say that, without state assistance, children often end up in subpar centers or other settings.
"Who knows where they are?" White said. "I don't and you don't either."
He added, "And these are just the 5,000 who put their names on the waiting list."
Business and civic groups spent Tuesday at the State Capitol, pressing their case just as state budget negotiations near a critical stage.
After the Senate approves its own version of the $30 billion budget a House-Senate negotiating committee will likely be needed to hammer out key differences.
The session ends June 6.
Early childhood advocates include the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Greater New Orleans Inc., New Orleans Chamber, a variety of United Way branches, Louisiana Budget Project and the Urban League of Louisiana.
Edwards' early childhood spending proposal totals nearly $18 million, including $8.8 million to maintain current funding for about 1,800 4-year-olds.