State Capitol Baton Rouge politics

The Louisiana State Capitol.

In theory, everybody is in favor of early childhood education.

This year, not enough.

Louisiana is losing short-term federal funding for about 16,000 seats in early childhood programs. The state is not stepping up to fill a damaging loss.

Amid a rush of new revenues in a post-pandemic economic recovery, “everybody” seems to have evaporated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed budget allocated $52 million to somewhat replace the lost federal funding. That would have preserved about 4,000 seats in quality programming for the earliest learners, from birth to kindergarten age.

In the budget fracas that consumed the State Capitol this year, the House's decision to eliminate that money was disheartening for a broad array of business and labor and social service providers and educators, all of whom vouch for the vital importance of early childhood education to get kids off to a good start and help their parents fully participate in the economy.

The Louisiana Policy Institute for Children cites data showing that early childhood education pays immense dividends to the society willing to pay the upfront costs.

Kids start learning instantly. Everybody can see that, especially new parents who watch that miracle occur.

Louisiana has been doing some things right. The state has made a robust effort to evaluate early-learning programs so that parents can find the high-quality teaching that takes advantage of mushrooming brain development in the young.

Business groups are strong advocates for early childhood education, in part because of the long-term benefits; dollar for dollar, quality programs are one of the best investments we can make in future workforce readiness. They see a shorter-term benefit as well, because parents need child care in order to go to work.

And again, everybody's in favor of that. 

Or everybody was, until it was time to write the check. 

Separate tracks in the Legislature eliminated the partial reinstatement of the federal money lost this year, even as revenues surged in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

We were astonished to see the House cut Edwards' proposed funding for early childhood and immediately add about the same amount of money for local projects. And we were disappointed when the Senate reinstated only $14 million, a sliver of the original $52 million ask. For reasons that nobody bothered to explain, the long-term future of children was put on hold for shorter-term priorities.

The budget bills are somewhat in flux as the session nears its end on Thursday evening. Like the citizens of the state, we’ll have to see what the process will generate; if politics is never particularly pretty, its outcomes are important.

The sad part is that, even when lawmakers from all sides claim to be in favor of helping kids make it in life, the money to launch them remains a low priority year after year. Until that changes, nothing much else will.