Significant barriers remain for thousands of working families in need of quality care and education for children birth to age 3

The Louisiana Department of Education announced it has won a competitive federal Preschool Development Grant worth more than $11 million each year for three years, starting in 2020, to create at least 600 new seats at early learning sites for low-income children birth to age 3, improve the quality of early childhood education programming, and build the capacity of local communities to meet the needs of their youngest learners.

Louisiana has won versions of this grant twice before, bringing in $40.3 million, not including the newest funding, since 2014.

"Since Act 3 of 2012, Louisiana has positively transformed its early childhood education system, boosting it to No.8 in the nation," said State Superintendent John White, citing a ranking by the Bipartisan Policy Center. "We are proud this hard work has again been recognized by the federal government in the form of funding support. This new grant award marks an important step toward solving the state's crisis of access, particularly among children birth to age 3, who are most in need."

"However," White added, "significant barriers remain for thousands of working families in need of quality care and education for their children. We must continue to work together to find solutions and close this gap."

Among the key initiatives outlined in the state's proposal, the grant will allow Louisiana to:

--Create at least 600 new seats in child care centers for children birth to age 3 in the first year. These seats will be prioritized for programs that provide infant care, meet teacher certification requirements, reach minimum quality rating scores, and will be offered as fully funded seats in child care centers and family child care homes. Additional seats may be added over the three years.

--Double the number of Ready Start Network pilots. These locally-led pilot programs, which were created in response to 2018 legislation, are charged with increasing access to high-quality early childhood education in their communities. They are critical to sustainably solving Louisiana's seat crisis for children birth through age 3. The grant will allow the Department to double the number of Ready Start Networks. Currently, there are 13 pilots statewide.

--Fund community-based guides to assist families. These guides, called Early Childhood Education Guides, will recruit and support families to apply for and re-certify for child care assistance and build a community-level waiting list of eligible children for seats. Not only will this help reduce barriers for families, it will increase funding efficiencies.

--Strengthen relationships with family child care home providers. Building on an existing pilot, Louisiana will establish and strengthen regional networks of family child care home providers, those who provide approved child care services from their homes. Louisiana will also measure the quality of these operations and offer support for improvement efforts for pilot participants.

Various sub-grant opportunities will be available to communities to carry out this work over time.

"Louisiana was one of just 20 states across the country to win this Preschool Development Grant. That was not by chance," said Tony Davis, member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. "I applaud the efforts of the Department to win this award for our state, and I look forward to following the important initiatives this funding will support over the coming years."

Dr. Libbie Sonnier-Netto, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, agreed. 

"This exciting news should serve as momentum for early childhood providers, advocates, and lawmakers to continue their progress," she said. "While this funding is a positive step, more can--and must--be done for our children. Louisiana currently serves nearly all 4-year-old children, but only serves 7 percent of in-need children birth to age 2 and 33 percent of in-need children age 3."

In January 2019, the state's Early Childhood Care and Education Commission unanimously approved a plan that would solve for the gap in access among children birth through age 3. The "LA B to 3" plan outlined the need for an investment of $86 million and an increase of nearly that amount annually over the next decade.

"Louisiana's success is tied to the success of its children," said Rep. Stephanie Hilferty (R-Metairie), who chaired the commission and authored the bill to establish it. "Our state created LA 4, and today 90 percent of 4-year-old children in need have access to quality early learning. Our younger children deserve the same quality care and education."

During the 2019 Louisiana Legislative session, lawmakers contributed $20 million toward this cause. That money prevented a decrease in prekindergarten services due to the loss of federal funds and increased the number of seats available in child care centers for low-income, working families.

"This year, Louisiana, for the first time in a decade, dedicated funding in its budget toward early childhood education," said Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), who also chaired the commission. "Let us show by continuing this investment that our children and workforce opportunities really are priorities for Louisiana's future."

Contributed by La. Department of Education