Since 2012, Louisiana’s birth-to-five early care and education (ECE) system has been consolidated within the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and includes oversight of the Ready Start Network initiative, which supports local infrastructure that empowers community networks to drive improvement. Since the inception of its early childhood reform efforts, the state has had a strong strategic framework in place, which has guided its Preschool Development Birth to Five Grant (PDG B-5), and now its decisions about the use of new federal funds. In an interview in May 2021, Deputy Assistant Superintendent of Early Childhood Strategy, Taylor Dunn described the state’s priorities and new ideas for building on their state’s momentum towards a high-quality, equitable birth-to-five system.
Given that Louisiana has a consolidated, unified system, how are you approaching the planning to use the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for early care and education?
We’re investing in the capacity of local communities that will set them up for success beyond this one-time federal funding. Since 2015, we have had an early childhood network in every community, focusing on the local coordination of early childhood – including coordinated enrollment, coordinated CLASS observations, and coordinated funding requests for community pre-K funding. We built on this effort with the formation of the Ready Start Networks in 2019. The networks are provided with funding and support to develop a local strategic plan; recruit a broad set of stakeholders; establish a local governance structure and generate revenue for birth through three-year-old access.
Our approach to disbursing a portion of federal relief funds through the Ready Start Networks is increasing their capacity around expanding child care access, by identifying local gaps and forging new partnerships. We are optimistic that this boost of funding will helps accelerate their efforts to expand the supply of and access to high-quality early childhood opportunities for the long term. We’re hopeful that, through a combination of federal, state, local, and philanthropic funds, we’ll be able to sustain this expansion after three years (when stimulus funds have to be fully expended); but our networks are also thinking strategically about how they layer funds and prepare to phase out if need be.
We’ve also pledged to allocate relief dollars to the Louisiana Early Childhood Education Fund that provides matching state dollars for local investment in expanding access. Unfortunately, there are many communities in our state that lack the child care supply (e.g. facilities, early childhood workforce, etc.) to take advantage of the new opportunities. To support those communities, we are making grants available to Ready Start Networks specifically focused on activities related to establishing additional child care supply.
As one facet of supply building, we are thinking about facilities. While there are clear limitations around supporting capital projects with federal stimulus funds, we’re exploring strategies for leveraging other funding (state and philanthropic) to address this huge issue. We’re exploring a revolving loan fund with First Children’s Finance, which is a Community Development Financial Institution. They pair loans with support and technical assistance for business development.
We know we have opportunities to explore within the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) fund as well. LDOE released planning frameworks for school districts and the Ready Start Networks at the same time, acknowledging the opportunities for ESSER to support the expansion of PreK and other early childhood programs (e.g. literacy, summer learning, tutoring) within a school district.
We have a grant from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative that is focusing on expanding access, as well as doing more to better connect our ECE systems with health and developmental supports. For example, we’ve been doing a big push around universal developmental screening through community networks and the relief funds are being used by communities to build up their capacity.
What dilemmas are you facing in planning for the use of the federal funds?
The Louisiana Early Childhood Care and Education Commission released its annual report at the end of March 2021, making the case for substantial investment in ECE. When ARPA passed just a few days later, there was some concern about the implications a large increase in federal funding would have on efforts to focus attention on the state’s role in financing early care and education. State lawmakers have been considering various revenue streams that would provide greater support to ECE. Many advocates and leaders in our state are considering the federal stimulus funds as a “bridge” that gets us to 2024, but urging our state and localities to plan to sustain the expansion efforts in 2024 and beyond.
And of course, we know there are things about our systems that don’t work. The overwhelming message from the field is that the urgent and pressing need is the child care workforce. We’ve been thinking about the role the state could play in terms of supporting the child care workforce to better access health insurance. We’re also thinking about what we might pilot around wages and benefits and how to sustain this effort in the long term. We’ve used some of the federal stimulus funding to make grants to child care providers, specifically to enhance teacher pay. Through an evaluation with a research partner, we’ll be following the workforce over the next year to see how that impacts teacher turnover.
We’re also thinking about what role LDOE could play to support families that aren’t enrolled in early care and education programs. What are the scalable, cost-effective approaches we could incorporate that would support child development? We haven’t figured it all out yet, but we are exploring ideas.
What strategies have worked well in engaging stakeholders to determine priorities in your state?
We’ve had several listening sessions with various stakeholder groups, including child care providers, advocates and state leaders, child care resource and referral agencies, and our Ready Start Network leaders. We held one listening session with families and tried our best to get the word out, but participation was low. We really want the voices of families in this process and are thinking about how we work with our partners on the ground to better elevate the voices of families. We also made a statewide survey available for all of our early childhood stakeholders to collect feedback on ARPA planning, and we have received more than 470 responses thus far.
We’ve put out a planning guide to support school systems and community networks with planning for and budgeting new funds under CCRSA, and we expect to release a comprehensive plan for supporting children, families, and and the child care field through ARPA funding sometime this summer.