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Guest column: New Orleans' investment in early childhood education is a model for state

Guest column: New Orleans' investment in early childhood education is a model for state

Working families are facing a huge dilemma spanning multiple generations due to the COVID-19 epidemic: accessing quality child care.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation recently reported that 50% of parents who have not yet returned to work cite child care as the biggest reason they have not returned. With many child care providers operating with limited capacity and at higher costs, or in some cases closed all together, working parents have had to make some tough choices.

The inability to find child care in today’s new normal has forced many young parents, disproportionately women, to make the ultimate career decision — to leave the workforce. Access to quality early child care is crucial to these parents’ ability to participate in the workforce. It also provides an educational and emotional foundation for our community’s youngest citizens that is critical to their future development. As far as government spending is concerned, it is also a smart investment with a 13% annual return on every dollar invested, as shown in Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman’s research.

Quality early childhood education establishes a strong foundation for the future success of a child, as 80% of brain development occurs by the time a child turns 3 years old. This time of rapid learning and continuous exploration is a critical time in a child’s life. Extensive research shows that young children who participate in high-quality early childhood education programs are four times more likely to graduate high school and become productive citizens than peers who do not participate in such programs. Participation in quality early childhood education programs also develops cognitive and character skills that drive education, career and life success such as attentiveness, impulse control, persistence and teamwork.

A great example of a local government that is actively working toward allocating funds toward this important priority is the city of New Orleans. In 2017, New Orleans became the first local government in the state to directly fund early childhood education by allocating $750,000 to establish the City Seats program, which created access to high-quality early childhood education for 50 children from low-income families. Again in 2019, the City of New Orleans allocated $3 million to serve 276 children in the City Seats program. And in 2020, Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed including dedicated funding for early childhood education in a combined millage renewal package for the Dec. 5 ballot. This millage renewal would generate an estimated $1.5M for early childhood education each year through the year 2040. This dedication of funds by New Orleans is an innovative way to enhance the education of children and give working parents the tools they need to provide for their children.

In addition, New Orleans securing a steady funding stream has the potential for a dollar-for-dollar match at the state level through the Early Childhood Education Fund. The fund, which was established in 2017 by state Rep. Walt Leger III, was created to incentivize local investment in early education. The fund has yet to receive any money but has the potential for funding in the near term.

Ellevate Louisiana, a statewide nonpartisan policy organization run by women throughout Louisiana, supports local measures such as the one in New Orleans that dedicates funds toward early childhood education. This initiative in New Orleans could potentially be used as a model in cities across Louisiana. In a time of fiscal crisis in our state, local governments looking within to find some of the resources for early childhood education is not only a good idea, but could also be a real catalyst to getting our lawmakers in Baton Rouge to expand their efforts to deliver on this important funding through the Early Childhood Education Trust Fund.

In an uncertain time, investing in early childhood education is a cost-effective strategy to lighten the strain on working families and strengthen our economy while improving the success of our children in school and life.

Julie Stokes is the founder and chair of Ellevate Louisiana and former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

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