Consultants are recommending that over the next seven years Baton Rouge should aim to more than double the number of infants to 4-year-olds who attend publicly funded educational programs, an expansion that would require more than $100 million a year in new spending.
“We really want to get to a point where every child has access to high-quality early care and education,” said Hamilton Simons-Jones with ResourceFull Consulting based in New Orleans.
Simons-Jones presented his firm’s work Thursday at a special workshop meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
The specific goal would be to increase the number of early childhood seats from about 5,000 currently to about 11,500 by the 2029-30 school year, which Simons-Jones said would reach about 75% of the economically disadvantaged children up to age 4 who live in the parish.
The bulk of that growth would occur among the younger children, especially 3-year-olds, where the number of seats would grow from 1,265 at present to about 3,000. And it would come from expanding fully funded public programs such as Early Head Start to subsidizing the cost of private childcare centers that are willing to participate.
Simons-Jones and his team of consultants led a 25-member steering committee that included a range of community and early childhood leaders in Baton Rouge.
Using federal COVID-19 relief funds, the school system entered into a $75,000 contract with Simons-Jones’ firm earlier this year to develop a strategic plan for how the school system could expand early childhood education. It’s part of a $10 million expansion of early childhood education championed by Supt. Sito Narcisse.
“I do believe this will be a tremendous game changer to this parish,” Narcisse said.
School Board members listened but took no votes. They generally had positive things to say about what they heard.
“I think everything you are doing is great,” said Board President David Tatman.
Early childhood advocates argue spending on early learning will reap long-term benefits for children, pointing to several longitudinal studies of high-quality early childhood programs:
“For every dollar we spend we can get at least a 13% return on investment,” said Libbie Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.
Sonnier listed a variety of specific positive results that children see from such programs:
- Higher IQs.
- Fewer needing special education services.
- Fewer having teenage pregnancies.
- More graduating from high school and college.
- Fewer having run-ins with the criminal justice system.
- Fewer developing chronic diseases when they become adults.
“We can all agree these are all attributes we would want for all of our children,” Sonnier said.
Simons-Jones estimates the parish would need to spend another $114.5 million a year to meet the expansion goals, plus another $55.6 million in one-time spending to build or expand facilities to accommodate the additional children as well as to recruit, train and pay educators what’s need for the expansion to be successful.
To figure out how best to finance such a huge ramp-up in early education in Baton Rouge, Simons-Johnson urged the formation of a special task force that would “spend some time over the next several months looking very diligently at all the possible funding sources for early childhood education, the feasibility of pursuing them and mapping plans on which ones we’re going to go for and when.”
One way to finance much of the expansion would be a new tax. Earlier this year voters in New Orleans agreed to a 4-mill property tax that will fund a $21 million annual expansion of their early childhood programs.
Last month the Policy Institute for Children teamed up with LJR Custom Strategies in New Orleans to conduct a poll of 400 registered voters in East Baton Rouge Parish. They found that 60% agreed that doubling the number of early childhood seats in the parish is a good, even an excellent, use of “public funding” and that these voters would be willing to pay more in taxes to make that happen.
Board member Jill Dyason, while supportive of early childhood expansion, said she wants to see all the details of the poll before she’s ready to accept its accuracy.
Dyason also was critical of another proposal to restore to the school system sliding-scale tuition for families interested in early childhood education but whose incomes are too high to qualify for it for free — the tuition was suspended during the pandemic. Dyason said the tuition has failed to attract families to the program through the years because it is too high, something she found out firsthand years ago when she considered enrolling a child of hers in the program.
“I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘There’s no way, mine is going to the church,’” Dyason recalled.