Baton Rouge Chamber urges School Board candidates to ‘stop handwringing’ on universal early childhood education

The Advocate

The Capital region’s foremost business lobby says it supports placing a tax proposition on the ballot that would pay for “universal early childhood education” in Baton Rouge.

The historically tax-cautious Baton Rouge Area Chamber announced its interest in a new early childhood tax Thursday when it released a 10-part platform of policies it wants candidates running for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board this fall to adopt.

The other nine proposed policies should be familiar to school watchers. They include opening high-performing schools, closing underperforming schools and creating a special office to work closely with charter schools.

Six of nine School Board seats are being contested on Nov. 6. Three incumbents were re-elected without opposition when no one qualified to run against them. BRAC’s political action committee, FuturePAC, contributes up to $5,000 per election to candidates its supports.

The school system has not sought a new tax in two decades.

BRAC has been increasingly vocal in its support of expanding early childhood education. In a position paper released April 4, the business group encouraged local communities to “stop waiting for increased state funding and follow the example of West Feliciana Parish, which established universal prekindergarten years ago with its own money.

“The issue for early childhood is that there is no money for it,” said Liz Smith, senior vice president for economic competitiveness with the business organization.

“We have to stop the handwringing about it,” Smith said. “Everybody is in favor of early childhood education.”

Smith said BRAC is not specifying what kind of proposition should be proposed, saying it will leave it to school leaders to work out the details.

Support for high quality early childhood is driven by research studies showing that children who participate in such programs can do vastly better in school and in their careers later in life.

More than 16 percent of Louisiana parents asked about their child care arrangements reported quitting their jobs because of problems finding c…

Smith said BRAC’s support for expanding early childhood education is being driven by a 2016 report called “Losing Ground: How Child Care Impacts Louisiana’s Workforce Productivity and the State Economy.”

The report was prepared by the New Orleans-based Louisiana Policy Institute for Children in collaboration with the LSU Public Policy Research Lab. The heart of it was a phone survey of Louisiana residents with children aged four or younger.

Key findings of the survey were that employee absences and turnover costs due to child care issues cost Louisiana employers $816 million a year and that childcare issues result in a $1.1 billion loss annually for Louisiana’s economy.

Melanie Bronfin, executive director for the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, expressed surprise when alerted via email about BRAC’s stance: “WOW!! You made my day! That is great to hear.”

Bronfin, who presented her findings to BRAC last year, said she hopes that any proposal would focus not just on four-year-olds, but the youngest children as well. This is in line with the position of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome who has her own “Cradle to K” initiative.

Sharon Weston Broome promised last year during her successful campaign for mayor-president of East Baton Rouge that she would expand the help …

“It needs to be birth through age four given that there are so few (child care) slots for birth through age three, and 68 percent of young children have both parents working,” Bronfin said.

It won’t be cheap. In October 2013, then East Baton Rouge Parish superintendent Bernard Taylor said that adding 1,000 pre-k slots just for four-year-olds — that would make it “universal” at least for children that age from lower income households — would cost an extra $28 million a year.

Smith acknowledged the potential cost, that it’s not something that’s “going to be a drop in the bucket. But, she said, the potential upside is very high.

“We hope that candidates are bold enough to at least bring it to voters,” Smith said, adding that universal early childhood education could be a “game-changer” for East Baton Rouge Parish.

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