Jindal hits roadblock in Legislature on early childhood education changes
By LITTICE BACON-BLOOD
BATON ROUGE — Gov. Bobby Jindal’s attempt to restructure early childhood education hit a roadblock in the Louisiana Legislature when unrelated disputes between the House and Senate stalled the cornerstone bill that would have directly tied public dollars to student performance.
Now, the Jindal administration is looking to make regulatory changes to address some of what the legislation would have done if it had passed.
The bill by Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, called for uniform standards for kindergarten readiness and performance grades that 3- and 4-year-old students would have to meet or their schools would be stripped of public funding.
Appel’s proposal would have enabled Act 3, which passed in 2012 and started plans to assign letter grades to preschools and daycare centers that receive public funding and to steer dollars away from facilities deemed low-performing.
The measure got caught in the tussle over the $25 billion budget in the waning days of the session that ended Thursday. It was stonewalled on the House floor where it never came up for a vote, after breezing through the Senate earlier in the session.
While frustrated that his bill didn’t pass, Appel called the rejection a “bump in the road.”
“My understanding is that through the Department of Education some elements of the bill can be implemented in an incremental way or on some trial basis,” he said. “I’ve been told they will try to implement as many elements as they can without legislative action.”
Indeed, many of the major components of the bill already were codified in Act 3, such as the creation of an early childhood care and education network, an accountability system and quality rating system for daycare centers that include performance targets for children under 3 and academic standards for kindergarten readiness for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The state education department has allocated $2.6 million for a 15-parish early childhood pilot program. Set to start this fall and expected to include 23,000 students, the pilot program will be used to help create standards for measuring programs and assigning letter grades.
“We have the authority to proceed with these reforms and BESE is working to implement them,” Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing said.
He said lawmakers passed bills this session that will streamline licenses of daycare centers and realign school readiness tax credits to match the intention of the early childhood education revamp.
What remains murky is just how much financial pressure state officials can put on child care providers whose programs don’t make a passing grade. Under Appel’s bill, programs that failed to meet state standards for four consecutive years would have lost their public funding.
The regulatory stick could be an administration bill carried by Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, which tightens licensing standards and requirements for early childhood providers starting in 2014.
That measure, which Jindal signed into law Friday, restricts federal and state funds to Type III centers only, which must meet the performance standards for kindergarten readiness set out in the Act 3 network in order to be licensed.
Centers classified as Types I, II or IV, which are not held to the performance standards, are prohibited from receiving public funds, other than for food and nutrition. Violators will have their license automatically revoked.
State education officials have said that only about 54 percent of Louisiana students arrive in kindergarten prepared to handle the curriculum.
Louisiana has a mix of public, private and parochial programs and facilities that receive state and federal money to educate students from birth to 5 years old. The revamp is an attempt to bring academic uniformity to providers and give parents a performance report card.
Melanie Bronfin is director of The Policy Institute at the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, a nonprofit research center in New Orleans. She said despite the failure of Appel’s bill, the pilot program launching this fall will offer some needed guidance.
“We now have the opportunity to use the experience of these pilots to determine what will work and what won’t in the new system,” Bronfin said. “It is hoped that the lessons learned from these pilots, especially as to what components should constitute the grade and what supports are needed for programs to be successful, will be used to determine the legislation and regulations going forward.”