Libby Sonnier lauds state investment in early childhood education

Staff Report

The funding Louisiana lawmakers approved for early childhood education during the recent legislative session could amount to one of the most important investments made for children and their families.

That is the opinion of Libby Sonnier, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children.

Libby Sonnier

Sonnier addressed the Press Club of Baton Rouge last week regarding the investments the state made for early childhood education.

Lawmakers approved a $44 million allocation for early child care and education in the state budget.

Of that $44 million, $25 million will go to child-care assistance and $18 million to improving rates for exiting 4-year-old programs in the state.

“Note that I said, ‘Down payment,’ ” Sonnier said. “We need this type of down payment each year for over a decade to cover children at-risk through our state for the next decade.”

Lawmakers also gave the green light to an additional $40 million in funding to the Louisiana early childhood education fund.

It’s a critically important move, she said.

“With $40 million in that one-time fund, it allows us to work with locals in a big way,” Sonnier said.

The state still needs to shed light on the costs for early child care, along with the below average salaries for those who work in that field, she said.

It starts with the families.

Sixty-seven percent of children birth to age 4 have both of their parents or a single parent in the workforce.

Sixty-one percent of infants have their mothers going back to work their first year of life, and the child-care costs as much as public college tuition -- $8,700 a year for infants.

That doesn’t even cover cost of education, Sonnier said.

“We know the true cost of care for high quality early childhood education can be upward of $16,000 to $18,000 per year – and there’s not a family that can afford that,” she said.

Sonnier stressed the importance of early childhood education for a strong and consistent academic future.

A child’s mind is similar to the foundation of a house, she said.

“Just like the foundation of a house, children’s brains are built from the ground up and 85 percent of brain development happens in the first three years of life,” Sonnier said.

“So, if we don’t build the foundation strong when they’re young, we have to go back and remediate that.

“Just think about your own house if you had to remediate the foundation and how much that cost would be,” she said. “It’s the same way with children if we don’t invest in them in the first three to five years of life.”

The inability to keep staff at facilities also poses a problem.

Low wages for child care leads to a high turnover, she said.

Range for child-care teachers range to $9.77 per hour, lower than the national average of $12.27 and Southern average of $10.97

“What happens is we have our most vulnerable people taking care of our most vulnerable population because they don’t have a living wage and can barely afford to live,” Sonnier said.

“It makes our child-care businesses struggle because at the end of the day that makes our businesses really struggle not only to retain but also recruit talented teachers to work with our youngest.”

Child-care teachers leave the profession early, which affects the quality of care children are getting, she said.

“The state budget is a value proposition, and based on that, Louisiana spends less than half of 1 percent of our state budget on early childhood education, despite a tremendous need and significant potential return on investment,” Sonnier said.

According to economist Jim Heckman, every dollar the state spends on early childhood education can lead to a $13 return on the investment –and it may have increased to $18.

“I don’t know you, but I know about me – there’s not anywhere I can put that kind of money on something and get that type of return on investment,” she said. 

“So, it makes sense that we would want to do that in our state and in our children.”