By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board
June 29, 2018
|Valerie Martinez works on a writing exercise while other students engage|
in their own activities during Pre-K class at Audubon Charter School on
Friday, April 29, 2016. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com
Life is rough for tens of thousands of children in Louisiana. They can't count on having enough to eat, and their parents' jobs are shaky. Many of them deal with violence in their neighborhoods, and their schools are subpar.
In measurement after measurement, we don't do right by our youngest residents.
That harsh reality is reflected in the latest Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which ranked Louisiana 49 th overall this year. That is one spot worse than in 2017.
We should be moving in the other direction.
Kids Count looks at dozens of statistical measures to determine its rankings. Louisiana is 50 th in economic well-being, with 314,000 children living in poverty and 393,000 children whose parents don't have job security. Our state is 47 th in education and 44 th in health. We have high rates of teenage deaths and babies who are born at a low weight.
Almost half of 3- and 4-year-olds in Louisiana are not in preschool of any kind. High percentages of fourth-graders have difficulty with reading, and a large percentage of eighth-graders aren't proficient in math.
The lack of preschool is one reason students get so far behind. And we're not doing nearly enough to remedy that.
The Legislature did continue funding for preschool programs for 4-year-olds in the budget passed in the special session that ended Sunday night. And lawmakers used $28 million in new federal funding to shore up the Child Care Assistance Program, which is the only state-run early education program for children under age 4.
The child care program provides subsidies for low-income children whose parents are working, in school or in job training. The new federal money should cover 4,000 of the 5,200 children on the waiting list for services. It will be the first substantial increase in funding for the program in nine years, according to Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.
Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, had a good proposal this spring for new state funding. His House Bill 513 would have used $10 million a year for four years from the proceeds of the sale of unclaimed property for the early childhood fund. That would have helped further whittle down the waiting list.
But the state treasurer wanted to use the money in other ways, and the Senate rejected Rep. Carter's bill.
So, the state didn't invest any more of its own money into these vital pre-K programs for the coming budget year.
That needs to change next year. Lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation in 2012 aimed at improving the quality of preschool. But they haven't invested nearly enough money into that effort or into extending access to more children.
The Child Care Assistance Program was serving almost 40,000 children 10 years ago but has only had money for 15,000 in recent years. There are 140,000 low-income children age 3 and under in Louisiana who lack access to a publicly funded spot for child care or preschool, Ms. Bronfin said.
The state also has cut funding for trauma counseling for children. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal eliminated the state's Early Childhood Supports and Services program in 2012, doing away with mental health care for children under age 6 who had been exposed to violence. Then, in 2017, Gov. Edwards cut Medicaid-funded mental health services for children of all ages when the state was facing a budget deficit.
Investing in vulnerable children would improve their chances for success in school and in life. It would make it easier for their parents to work and strengthen Louisiana's economy.
It's also the right thing to do.