Louisiana Pre-K Overhaul Moves Forward (Video)

BATON ROUGE, La. – Undeterred by adverse court rulings, the Louisiana Department of Education is forging ahead with overhauls approved by the state Legislature last spring.

Less than a week after receiving a state court decision that portions of Act 2, the “School Choice Act,” were unconstitutional, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) gave its okay to a slate of Course Choice providers. Course Choice, along with the statewide voucher program, was ruled illegal because it uses public school funds to pay private entities.

BESE also put its stamp of approval on the framework for pulling all the state’s childcare and pre-K programs into a single network, and putting all the state and federal pre-K moneys into one shared pot.

“To the best of my knowledge, no other state is even contemplating doing this,” State Superintendent of Education John White proudly told BESE. “What we’re proposing here is one decision-making process around how dollars are allocated across all of our programs—NSSCD, LA-4, Head Start, on down–and that we tie the continued funding of programs to their ability to prepare children for early elementary grades—developmentally, as well as academically.”

The outline of the plan is spelled out in Act 3, part of Governor Bobby Jindal’s ambitious package of education reforms endorsed by Louisiana’s legislature last spring. At the BESE meeting, concerns were raised about two key provisions of the plan—funding and accountability.

The accountability component of Act 3 requires standardized testing of Louisiana’s 3 and 4-year olds, and that every pre-K program be graded—and funded—based on how well the pre-schoolers do on those tests.

“Testing strips people of their creativity, and we need to keep children creative because that’s the scale that everyone needs to succeed in any profession,” cautioned Rachel Ginn, an undergrad majoring in education at LSU.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University, has compiled evidence on the efficacy of testing children for kindergarten readiness. One NIEER report cautions that “Readiness testing is common, although the predictive validity of these tests is limited.”

That report analyzes numerous studies done with thousands of kindergarten teachers over the past 20 years, noting “ten-percent or less think that being able to count to 20, or knowing the letters of the alphabet are important in terms of kindergarten readiness.” The report says instead more than 75-percent of kindergarten teachers feel that the “top three readiness attributes are for a child to be (1) physically healthy, well-rested and well-nourished; (2) able to communicate thoughts and needs in words; and (3) curious and enthusiastic in approaching new activities.” Those attributes are difficult to measure on a true/false, multiple-choice standardized test.

But the greatest concerns expressed during public testimony before BESE involved the funding directives for the new network. Not all of the state’s childcare providers are prepared—or able—to function like preschools. Loretta Holland with Volunteers of America points out there are hundreds of “family home providers,” each caring for a handful of children under public assistance programs.

“We have those grandmothers who are taking care of six children,” Holland reminds the board.

Rachelle Wilcox runs a New Orleans-area daycare center serving children of the working poor. She says over the past few years, the state’s childcare assistance program has been steadily cutting per-child funding to facilities like hers. She’s worried that meeting the requirements under this new program is going to cost facilities like hers even more money.

“We are excited about this program to allow our teachers and our staff to get the support and the mentoring to provide high-quality to these children,” Wilcox told BESE. “We just ask that you look at the childcare assistance program and see about maybe putting more money into that program.”

Louisiana Childcare Association president Wyatt Graves says the members of his organization are “cautiously optimistic” that the program will be helpful, as there are currently vast differences in how much pre-K programs receive.

“There are programs that are receiving upwards of five and six thousand dollars per child for a nine-month year. That’s also just providing care for six hours a day,” Graves says. “And then there are programs that are serving children for 12 months out of the year, 12 hours a day, and only receiving 15-hundred dollars per child, per year.”

Head Start programs get even more money—an average of 8-thousand dollars per child, per year. But the state may have trouble rolling those dollars into a single pot of pre-K money, because the federal government pays Head Start centers through direct grants—instead of funneling it through state channels. BESE member Chaz Roemer wonders how that’s going to work.

“I completely agree we need to get rid of the fragmented approach to funding that we have. Obviously, some of these programs are federal programs—Head Start, for instance. To what extent are we able to make adjustments to that?” Roemer asks Superintendent White.

White says BESE will have to ask the Louisiana Legislature to make changes to state law in order to access some of the money. He also says since the state licenses all these childcare facilities, they can use the carrot-and-stick approach.

“While we cannot tell the federal government, ‘You can’t send dollars to those people,’ we can say to people in our state, ‘You can or cannot operate an early childhood center’,” White tells BESE.

BESE approved the framework for the new pre-K network, and moving ahead with a pilot project for the next school year. As for specifics about how kindergarten readiness will be measured—and the financial ramifications for childcare providers that don’t measure up when the network  becomes active statewide in 2015-2016, White says he’ll be drafting those policies over the next few months, and bring them back to the board for approval.

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