After criticism, Edwards proposes new early childhood money
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards is urging lawmakers to add more money for early childhood education to next year's budget after receiving criticism for shortchanging the programs. But his proposal falls far short of the millions advocates want.
The Democratic governor didn't include money in his initial budget proposal to replace nearly $9 million in expiring federal funds that pay for pre-kindergarten programs. In addition, he didn't add new dollars sought by advocacy groups and Superintendent of Education John White to help more children from birth to 3 years old with early learning assistance.
The absence of that funding provoked outcry from White and others that Edwards was ignoring thousands of families on a waitlist for a program that helps pay for child care and early learning programs while parents are working or attending school.
Now, Edwards is asking House lawmakers, who are crafting the budget for the financial year that begins July 1, to backfill the expiring federal funds and add nearly $5 million in new money. The financing would come from an improved state income forecast, along with other education money the Edwards administration said was identified.
"Our children are one of the most important groups we can invest in, which is why we have prioritized finding additional funding for early childhood education," the governor said in a statement.
It's unclear if House Republican leaders will use the figures backed by the governor, or if they'll try to add more money when they release their version of the budget Monday.
White thanked Edwards for working to fill the gap in existing programs. But in a statement, he pressed for additional dollars.
"Our youngest learners, our working families and our state depend on it," White said.
Louisiana years ago created a pre-K program for at-risk children, and a state-created commission said 90 percent of 4-year-olds in need now have access to a quality early education program. Advocates are asking for an additional $86 million yearly for early childhood care and education programs for children from birth to 3 years old, to give Louisiana a high-quality, seamless system of education and care for children until they enter kindergarten.
Supporters of the increased financing say research shows young children with access to quality education options are less likely to need special education services in school, drop out before graduation or end up in the criminal justice system.
The Ready Louisiana Coalition, a coalition of businesses and community organizations pushing for expansion of early learning programs, released a statement pressing lawmakers for a larger investment: "The need is great, and we must do more."
Advocates also are looking beyond the general tax base for new dollars. They're eyeing a proposal to legalize sports betting, seeking to have tax dollars generated from that effort dedicated to early childhood aid. But it's unclear if the Senate-backed bill can pass in the House or when tax dollars would start to flow.