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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's education department is in the midst of a massive task, trying to pull a fragmented system of publicly funded child care centers and preschool programs into a cohesive, quality network.
The goal is for parents to be able to sift through their options in one application location and for children, regardless of their parents' income, to get adequately prepared to attend kindergarten so they don't start off behind their peers.
The heftiest hurdle — as with many things in state government — has been the funding.
That's why education leaders cheered when they learned the improvement effort was receiving a boost: $32 million in federal grant money over four years. Louisiana was one of 18 states to get grants aimed at giving more quality educational opportunities to at-risk children.
"We badly need that money," Superintendent of Education John White told lawmakers last week. "I've been trying to beat that drum as much as possible."
Lawmakers required the early childhood education revamp in 2012 to better prepare children for kindergarten, seeking a fully integrated network of programs by the 2015-16 school year.
"Our vision is one where you have private pre-K, public pre-K, child care centers and Head Starts all doing the things required to provide quality education, and families able to choose among them easily," White said.
As part of that overhaul, licensing authority of the varying types of facilities and programs was shifted from the state social services department to the education department.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently agreed to a rewrite of the licensing regulations after more than a year of work among state health and safety agencies, the education department and the child care centers.
The changes add fingerprint-based criminal background checks for employees and volunteers, require centers to post their daily schedules and set minimum staffing ratios.
Louisiana spends public dollars for children from low-income families to attend day care facilities, Head Start centers, the state's LA 4 preschool program and other early childhood programs.
About 38,000 4-year-olds are being served through a publicly funded preschool program. That assistance is critical in a state where nearly 28 percent of its children live in poverty, the fourth-highest rate in the nation.
But White said the state has a shortage of available seats for another 5,000 children who aren't being served and gaps in quality for those in pre-K programs. And he said applying for the available assistance can be unnecessarily complicated.
He described parents who have to drive to neighboring parishes to apply for child care assistance and then have to travel someplace different to try to get their child in a Head Start program.
"We've got to change that through a one-stop shop in every parish," White said.
The federal grant money will be spent on preschool programs that serve at-risk 4-year-olds. White said the first year's money, $2.4 million, will be spent in Monroe and in Caddo, Iberville, Lincoln, Orleans and Rapides parishes. More parishes will be added in later years.
The dollars — nearly derailed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in a dispute over the Common Core education standards — will add new seats in early childhood programs. They also will increase the subsidy paid for children already in programs, to improve the facilities' quality and help them hire college-educated teachers.
The plan is to require teachers at every child care center in the state to have an associate's degree by 2019. That's a greater expense, and the state wants to steer funding to help cover that cost.
White said for the 2015-16 school year, the grant will pay for 340 more children to go to preschool and improve teaching and services for other students. Over the full grant, 4,580 more children will be added to pre-K programs, and nearly 6,000 will get improved teaching, according to the education department.
To keep the momentum of the long-term changes going, education leaders also are scouring for other available sources of financing, knowing that the state's budget picture is bleak and a new infusion of state cash is unlikely.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.
An AP News Analysis