On the Ballot

New Orleans voters have option to create 1,000 early childhood slots with April 30 millage

By Matt Sledge

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

April 16, 2022

New Orleans voters are being asked this month to approve a property tax to create 1,000 or more early childhood seats for low-income children under age 4.

Supporters cast the April 30 ballot proposition as a transformational plan to give a generation of children a leg up as they enter school – with the added benefit of freeing their parents to work or pursue higher education.

Unlike a December 2020 ballot proposition spearheaded by Mayor LaToya Cantrell that would have shaved money from the library budget to pay for early childhood spots, this measure focuses solely on young learners and has attracted little organized opposition. Cantrell is part of a broader coalition of politicians and groups supporting this measure, including the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Still, the 20-year, 5-mill property tax comes at a time of widespread skepticism about the city’s ability to deliver basic services. Restaurateur Bill Hammack, who chairs the pro-millage campaign, says investing in children now could address many of the city’s perennial problems.

“You’re going to see better health outcomes and a reduction in crime. It’s just what happens when you take care of those kids in the first 1,000 days,” he said. “If you have a lousy foundation, you’re going to end up with a lot of problems in that house down the road.”

Early voting begins Saturday and runs through April 23, with the exception of Easter Sunday.

1,000 seats
In the 2023-2024 year, the millage is designed to create up to 1,000 seats at early childhood centers for babies and toddlers. The millage will also support an enrollment process managed by NOLA Public Schools, an advertising campaign, “wraparound” services like vision and dental screening, the cost of teacher training and expanding the number of centers across the city.

If the proposition passes, the estimated $21 million it will raise in its first year will be eligible for state matching funds, potentially doubling the number of low-income children served to 2,000. According to the state Department of Education, the matching fund is only expected to have $2 million at the end of this fiscal year, but it is set to grow with the addition of revenue streams like a tax on sports betting.

The millage will add $50 annually on each $100,000 of property value above the $75,000 homestead exemption, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research. That works out to $172.50 on a house valued at $420,000.

That’s a small price to pay for the benefits of early childhood education, say supporters, who note that it’s less than other millage rollbacks and expirations since 2019. They estimate that there are 8,300 kids who would be eligible to apply for the program through a lottery because their families are economically disadvantaged.

The expanded coverage would build upon a program called City Seats, which currently uses about $3 million from the city’s budget to place roughly 200 young children in programs.

‘A road out of poverty’
Even in its infancy, City Seats has allowed providers to expand the number of childcare centers they operate, raise salaries for educators and improve student teacher ratios, according to three owners.

Kids and parents both benefit, according to Sonjia Joseph, the executive director of Clara’s Little Lambs Preschool Academy. She said one of the parents in her program was able to pursue a master’s degree.

“Really, it’s a road out of poverty. When you give people a foundation of quality care and education, they can then focus on themselves as adults,” she said.

City Seats is managed by the New Orleans Early Education Network, a subsidiary of the non-profit group Agenda for Children, which is the city’s designated early childhood coordinator under a 2012 state law. While the group is private, CEO Jen Roberts says the network makes major decisions in public, in compliance with open meeting laws, and is jointly operated with NOLA Public Schools.

Under the terms of a cooperative endeavor agreement approved by the City Council earlier this month, Agenda for Children’s fees would be capped at a little over $1 million a year. The Orleans Parish School Board would receive $1.5 million for centralized enrollment and support services.

Dreaming big
About 70% of the taxes raised would go toward educating the additional children and wraparound services, with the remainder going to administrative costs and expenses like expanding centers.

The program would reimburse children’s seats at a rate of $12,000 per year. With the costs for wraparound services like health screenings, the Bureau of Governmental Research says the program is comparable to the $15,600 in public funding per child that the national Early Head Start program spends in Louisiana.

Millage supporters shy away from the term day care to describe what the program offers. “It is not babysitting. It is so much more than that,” said Hammack.

Providing wraparound services and paying educators higher wages ensure that the programs offer much more than traditional day care, according to Rochelle Wilcox, executive director of the Wilcox Academy of Early Learning.

“When we talk about dreaming big, when we talk about what our children deserve, this is the way the system should operate. That is why it costs that much,” she said.

Broad benefits
The pandemic has made direct evaluations of City Seats difficult. National studies have found, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research, that “early childhood education for children from low income households can deliver strong returns on investment through its positive impacts on earnings, health and crime.”

A recent, much-discussed study from Tennessee serves as a cautionary tale, however. Vanderbilt University’s study piggybacked off the fact that 4-year-olds were assigned slots in the state pre-K program by lottery. The study found that kids who received pre-K seats were better prepared academically as they entered kindergarten, but by 6th grade they had lower test scores and worse disciplinary records than those who had not.

Early childhood education supporters say that the study shows that quality of education matters as much as availability. In New Orleans, supporters of the millage are quick to emphasize the program’s quality controls, like requiring that childcare centers have a 1:4 caregiver-to-child ratio, use highly rated curriculums, and achieve a “proficient” or higher state rating.

Dale Farran, the Vanderbilt professor who led the research into Tennessee’s program, believes kids there underperformed because they were slotted into rigid programs housed in schools. She said the New Orleans program, which focuses on kids younger than the 4-year-olds in her study, seems designed to avoid many of those pitfalls.

“The kind of program you’re talking about, where the policy pays for slots in existing childcare centers and helps bolster what’s out in the community, I think that is exactly the way to go,” she said.

Educators in the City Seats program say there are ample opportunities for free play.

“Children learn through play, and that’s the whole point,” said Joseph. “So there is no option between one or the other, it is all incorporated into one, where the children don’t even realize they’re learning.”

Key backers
Unlike the December 2020 proposition that would have tinkered with library funding, this millage appears to have drawn little organized opposition. Along with Cantrell, supporters include U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, District Attorney Jason Williams and City Council President Helena Moreno.

Community groups backing the tax include the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region, the People’s DA Coalition and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

Ready Kids New Orleans, the campaign committee rallying support, raised $192,000 through March 21.

The top contributions were $60,000 from the American Heart Association’s Voices for Healthy Kids project, $25,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Funding Accelerator, which supports similar ballot propositions, $13,500 from Hammack, $10,000 from Hancock Whitney Bank, and $7,500 from charter school advocate Leslie Jacobs.

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