Bipartisan Commission in Louisiana Seeks to Expand Access to Early Care and Education
In 2017, Donald Songy, Senior Policy Adviser to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, contacted the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) for advice on ways to increase funding and bipartisan support for early childhood education. Governor Edwards is a Democratic Governor in a very conservative state. “Donald contacted us to strategically think through how to promote increased funding for early care and education,” said Dr. Beth Caron, Program Director for Early Care and Education. “We made a site visit to Louisiana to learn more about the state context, share information on generating support for early childhood, and discuss how the governor could play a leadership role.”
Meanwhile, Representative Stephanie Hilferty, an Early Learning Fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and a Republican legislator, contacted NCSL about introducing legislation to advance early care and education in Louisiana.
With the help of the Alliance for Early Success, the staff from the NGA Center and NCSL traveled to Louisiana and presented to a large, bipartisan group of legislators about the importance of the early childhood years, including the science of early childhood in terms of its educational, economic and workforce impact. The program included presentations from NGA, NCSL, Representative Hilferty, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the Governor, who expressed his support of this issue.
Louisiana just completed major reforms of their early care and education system, including:
- the transition of all early care and education programs to the department of education under the supervision of the state board of education;
- the development of a unified accountability system that is mandatory for all publicly funded programs, including Pre-K, Head Start/Early Head Start and child care; and
- the development of a Birth to Kindergarten Teaching Certification and an Early Childhood Ancillary Teaching Certification.
These reforms move Louisiana in the right direction, but lack of funding makes them inaccessible to most children. Although more than 90% of four-year-olds in need can access a publicly funded, full-day program, only 33% of three -year-olds and 7% of children younger than age three have access. The goal is to increase access to high-quality early care and education throughout the state.
“When Donald came to us, he had a clear sense of what was needed, but wanted help facilitating the Governor’s vision,” said Dr. Caron. “During and after our site visit, legislators and stakeholders were able to talk to a number of people around the state to get a better idea of what the barriers are, what challenges they’re facing, and how a dedicated group could come together to develop a set of strong recommendations for providing high quality care for children birth to age 4 in Louisiana.”
After the meeting, Representative Hilferty, working closely with Donald Songy and the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, drafted a bill that would establish an early childhood commission as part of the Governor’s legislative package. “It is wonderful to see such bipartisan support for this bill,” Hilferty said as she introduced HB 676 in April of 2018, because “almost half of Louisiana children are starting kindergarten behind, and this bill would allow for stakeholders in the Louisiana Department of Education, educators, the Governor’s office, Louisiana Legislature and members of the business community to come together to form the Early Childhood Care and Education Commission.”
Representative Hilferty’s bill passed almost unanimously in an otherwise very divided Legislature with 67 coauthors. The Commission started meeting in August and has met monthly. The Co-chairs of the Commission are both NCSL Early Learning Fellows—Representative Stephanie Hilferty and Senator Beth Mizell. The Commission also includes Senator Regina Barrow, another NCSL fellow. Louise Stoney and Karen Ponder, part of the Alliance National TA Network, made presentations to the Commission, along with Beth Caron from NGA and Bruce Atchison from Education Commission of the States. Prior to the 2019 Legislative Session, the Commission released its recommendations calling for an initial investment of $85.8 million, increasing to $839m over ten years, to serve 114,000 infants and toddler in need in quality settings.
“The NGA Center and the Alliance for Early Success have been pivotal in helping increase bipartisan support for early childhood education in the state of Louisiana,” said Songy. “With their collective knowledge and broad network, we were able to think strategically and come up with solid recommendations to bring to the legislature and, ultimately, start a commission and get legislation passed.”