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Should Increasing the Availability of Public Pre-K be a Priority in New Orleans?

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This post is the third installment of last week's blog post series from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans, @ERA_NOLA) about pre-K offerings in New Orleans and gives the practitioner perspective on the research introduced in the first and second installment.

Previously, Jane Arnold Lincove, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland — Baltimore County and ERA-New Orleans Non-Resident Research Fellow, discussed findings from a recent study on how the provision of pre-K in New Orleans changed as the charter sector grew after Hurricane Katrina. The study finds that the number of schools offering pre-K and the number of school-based pre-K seats dropped in New Orleans; the decrease in seats occurred primarily in charter schools.

At charter schools that did offer pre-K after Katrina, school leaders interviewed for the study offered two school-centered motivations — pursuit of higher test scores and early recruitment of families committed to sticking with the school for the long-run — in addition to more mission-focused commitments to providing early education for the benefit of students and the community.

Through analyses of student test scores, the study finds that offering pre-K had no measurable effect on charter schools' third grade math or ELA test scores. Charter schools that offered pre-K programs saw short-term, but not long-term, enrollment benefits. In her discussion of the findings' implications, Lincove noted that "policy and financing innovations are a more likely pathway to provide services" like pre-K in a decentralized setting such as New Orleans, as majority-charter districts are unlikely to consider requiring schools to provide pre-K.

This post features an interview conducted by ERA-New Orleans with responses from Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. (@drhlewis), Superintendent of Schools in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

 

pre-K in New Orleans.pngDo you think increasing pre-K seats in New Orleans' publicly funded schools should be a priority going forward? Why or why not?

Too many of our kids are starting kindergarten already behind, academically and socially. Across the nation, from New York City to San Antonio, Tulsa, Miami, and Washington, D.C., there is a reason why funding for early childhood education is being prioritized. Slowly, at first, and now all at once, communities are making the smart choice to invest what is a relatively small amount on the front end to save both money and lives on the back end.

Currently, the amount of funding provided per pupil for public pre-K students in New Orleans is half of what we provide for students in kindergarten and above. That means, due to a severe lack of funds, our youngest public school kids get less enrichment. It means instructors earn 15 to 20 percent less than a kindergarten teacher. In fact, the funding is so low that existing schools that offer pre-K often have to subsidize it with K-12 funding.

How, if at all, do you think the return of all schools in New Orleans to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) will impact early childhood throughout the city?

The year 2018 is not only New Orleans' 300th anniversary as a city, but in July — for the first time since Katrina — all state Recovery School District schools will be under the oversight of the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board.

It will be a historic moment, an important milestone in our recovery, and the start of a new era for our schools. So, with the return of schools to a locally elected board, the people of New Orleans have the ability to seize this once in a lifetime moment to demand that their elected leaders focus on what matters most in the long term. Unification is a good opportunity to stand as one and continue to move forward to find more funding for pre-K, like so many other communities across the nation have already done.

What do you take away from the study that may inform your work and others' in New Orleans?

The main takeaway is the need for more funding. In recent years, the state established the 150-plus schools New Orleans Early Education Network (NOEEN) and created a system of supports, accountability standards, and curriculum. Now, enrollment for early childhood education is managed through the centralized OneApp enrollment system, and the state has designated Agenda For Children as the lead agency responsible for working with us at the School Board and the larger system of NOEEN schools.

However, additional recurring state funding to pay for the new system and mandates has not materialized. To make up for it, we have seen great leadership from many groups and individuals, including members of the New Orleans legislative delegation, City Council, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who in this year's city budget dedicated $750,000 to early childhood education. We are so thankful for this remarkable support, but although we've come a long way, there is still a long way to go, and we will need everyone at the table: local, state, and federal government; business and philanthropy, faith-based groups and nonprofits; community and school leaders; and advocates and families. 

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