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Pre-K: Politics and Poverty

Pre-K students raise their hands to answer a question in an LA-4 class.
Sue Lincoln
Southern Education Desk

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for universal pre-K.

The President singled out Georgia and Oklahoma as states that have already made pre-K a priority.

Louisiana should also be ahead of the curve.

The state enacted a universal pre-K promise in 2008. Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, LA-4 classes are supposed to be provided at no cost to every eligible child.

LA-4 is Louisiana’s state-run pre-K program. Initiated in 2002, it’s acknowledged by early childhood education experts—like Dr. Craig T. Ramey of Virginia Tech—as being one of the best in the nation. Dr. Ramey is the author of numerous studies on the long-term efficacy of pre-K programs, and has been involved in analysis of the LA-4 program specifically.

“We know that children who have the LA-4 experience, when compared to children who do not have LA-4, are less likely to be retained in grade,” Dr. Ramey says, adding, “They are less likely to need special education, and they perform higher on statewide tests at both 3rd and 4th grade.”

So is Louisiana anywhere close to achieving the universal pre-K goal for the next school year? Not according to a recent report, “Early Childhood Risk and Reach in Louisiana”, done by researchers from Tulane and LSU. It shows that nearly one-third of the state’s children under the age of five live in poverty, but less than 18-percent of Louisiana’s kids attended any form of publicly-funded pre-K last year.

The report, which looks at each Louisiana parish (county) using the risk parameters established by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count, also says kids living in some of the state’s highest poverty parishes aren’t getting any access to LA-4. Dr. Ramey believes that’s short-sighted.

“One of the most important things that the science has told us is that high-quality programs have a particularly large benefit for the children who come from the least resourceful, most vulnerable environments,” Ramey says.

Parishes like East Carroll, Madison and Tensas in extreme northeast Louisiana can accurately be described as “dirt poor.”

Unemployment here is in double-digits, and there are no industrial employers—only agriculture. Bounded on the east by the Mississippi River levee, the landscape westward offers vistas of plowed fields awaiting spring seeding. Here, “new construction” means a grain silo, and the shiniest vehicles are tractors and cultivators for sale at the John Deere dealership.

Pre-schoolers in these parishes only have access to Head Start. Tensas Parish Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson says that’s because their population is too small to support LA-4 in addition to Head Start, which is fully-funded by the federal government.

Head Start, which began in 1965 as part of the U.S. “War on Poverty,” has been a frequent target of criticism because its cost exceeds that of other early education programs. For example, in Louisiana, Head Start costs $8,054 per child, while LA-4 costs $4,804 per child. Part of those higher costs come from Head Start’s focus on more than just academics, as Tensas Head Start director Gwenetta Turner explains.

“We do health screenings, dental screenings, developmental screenings. We have people that come in and do evaluations of all our children for whatever they need,” says Turner.

Patricia Buchanan-Williams, director of Tallulah Head Start in Madison Parish, says the region is so poor that without Head Start many children wouldn’t have access to basic medical services—or much else.

“Our parish—we suffer. The children are not exposed to things many others take for granted. For example, we do not have a Walmart,” Buchanan-Williams explains. “So we give vision screening, as well as hearing. And many times, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I mean, you think little Johnny can’t read? Little Johnny can’t see.”

Recently, criticism of Head Start has revolved around whether its effects on pre-schoolers last into their elementary school years. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that improvements children realize from participation in Head Start don’t last.  Tensas Head director Gwenetta Turner says that contradicts what their records show.

“We follow them all the way through school, from kindergarten all the way through high school. We keep up with honor roll, and I have to say that every child that we had that left Head Start, they were top of the class last school year, in their class in the regular school system.” Turner adds, “They were top of the class—they maintained ‘A’ honor roll, or either ‘A-B’ honor roll.”

Dr. Ramey says those singling out the federal report as support for their objections to President Obama’s pre-K initiative are ignoring the majority of studies on early childhood education.

“The argument that I hear being made–that the results don’t last—really is an uninformed argument. It’s being made by people who don’t really know the full extent of the scientific literature on this topic,” Ramey says.

Legislators in statehouses across the South are talking about pre-K now. In Mississippi, the debate is over whether to implement a state pre-K program at all. In chronically cash-strapped Louisiana, the argument over pre-K has lately taken a turn toward efficiency—whether the results are worth the cost.

“We have nearly one-point-4 billion dollars going into publicly-funded early childhood education, yet we have very little idea what kind of quality we are getting with those dollars,” Governor Bobby Jindal told Louisiana legislators last year. He got them to approve creation of a single statewide pre-K network, which will roll all the public pre-school funding streams—LA-4 and Head Start included—into one pot of money. Kids in all pre-K programs will be tested, and only the programs and facilities that produce “kindergarten-ready” children will be funded.

State government officials still have to figure out how to get their hands on the Head Start money. Head Start is funded through federal grants made directly to local community service agencies. It does not flow through state treasuries, and then out to the locals. State Superintendent of Education John White insists Louisiana can use state pre-school licensing rules as leverage.

“While we cannot tell the federal government, ‘You can’t send dollars to those people,’ we can say to people in our state, ‘You can or cannot operate an early childhood center,’—no matter where their dollars are from,” White told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in December.

This report was produced by the Southern Education Desk, a public media consortium exploring the challenges and opportunities for education in the region.

For more in the pre-K series, go to