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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Elephant in the Room

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Achievement gap exists for children in poverty

The elephant in the room. We use this statement to describe some important fact or problem that dwarfs others. In public education, the elephant in the room is the disconnect between what we all know about the importance of early child care and education and our investment in Louisiana’s youngest citizens. Since Early Education Week happened recently in Louisiana and we get closer to the 2019 legislative session, this is a good time to reconsider our approach to the elephant in the room.

As a physician, we study the science of learning. We know 90 percent of brain development occurs before children even enter kindergarten. As a parent and now a grandparent, I join with the parents and grandparents reading this piece to confirm this fact. We marvel at just how fast very young children learn. It is amazing.

Unfortunately, a huge achievement gap exists for large numbers of children in poverty before day one in kindergarten. Children in poverty hear one million fewer words in their first three years of life than children in more affluent families. We know this achievement gap leads to lower third-grade reading scores and that these scores are used to predict the future need for jail cell capacity in our state.

When far behind, catching up and keeping up is difficult in even the best of circumstances. Many children never catch up. The ultimate result of the achievement gap is lost lives – thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty in our state and filling Louisiana’s jail cells.

When debate about PreK-4 legislation occurred nearly 20 years ago, the late political columnist John Maginnis wrote in The Times: “The worst of Louisiana’s education problems are beyond the reach of the bestpaid teachers and best-run schools.

The children who will create the most problems, unhappiness and public expense are lost before they get to kindergarten. If learning starts in the cradle, children who get none of it at home in the first five years will never catch up once they get to the school.”

Many families have a parent, loving family member, or can afford quality child care and education. An equal number cannot provide the same for their children. This is the reason the legislature put together a commission to define the issues in early child care and education and consider solutions.

The scope of this issue is significant. Two-thirds of children under age 5 have both parents or a single parent working and child-care costs on average almost as much as public college tuition.

At the same time, Louisiana’s investment in this area of birth-3 has not been substantial. In 2007, Louisiana’s Childcare Assistance Program (CCAP) served 40,000 children. Now it serves less than 15,000. Currently, less than one-half of 1 percent of our budget is dedicated to the needs of our youngest citizens.

The commission benchmarked against other states in how they pay for early childhood programs. Our neighbor state to the west dedicates $1 billion per year out of the state formula for education. Other states are offering these services out of revenue from “sin” taxes – lottery, gambling, tobacco tax and tobacco settlement funds.

Louisiana is considering legalizing sports betting and has just legalized fantasy sports betting with potential taxation of this revenue. The Ready Louisiana Coalition, a coalition of over 40 business and community organizations statewide, including the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, Committee of 100 of Northwest Louisiana and Step Forward, asks whether this new state revenue source could be used to lessen burdens of young parents and serve our youngest citizens.

Even though we are not a tobaccogrowing state, we have one of the lowest state tax rates on cigarettes. As a physician, I ask could we both decrease smoking in young people and provide revenue for early child care and education with a higher tax on cigarettes?

So why should those of us with no children or grandchildren in our state care about the achievement gap? One reason is that Americans have always cared about those less fortunate and tried to help. The other is because a small investment brings a great return by providing opportunities and building the potential of our children. The effort we now put into improving early childhood education is the foundation of the economy of the next generation.

James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in economics, noted, “If states are under constant pressure to improve the efficient use of ever-dwindling financial resources, any investment away from young children can be viewed as a diversion of resources from the most efficient use of those funds.”

Whenever we consider community issues, it should be around answering the question “what’s missing, that if provided, would make a big difference in our community?” We do not want to leave tens of thousands of our next generation behind. We should strive to have a quality early child care and education system as one of those provided missing things.

Dr. Phillip Rozeman is the founder of the Alliance for Education and Education’s Next Horizon and serves on the board of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children and Louisiana Committee of 100.

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