A local fix and national model: New Orleans aims to fix child care

Blog Post
March 21, 2022

The Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX) is a cross-sector fellowship program designed to bring together journalists, entertainment producers, policy influencers, researchers, and social entrepreneurs around the science of learning. As part of the program, our fellows contribute to various publications, including New America’s EdCentral blog; BOLD, the blog on learning development published by the Jacobs Foundation; and outside publications.

Emmy O'Dwyer is an LSX Fellow in the 2020-2022 cohort.

With Congress at a standstill on big proposals to support child care, families and employers are once again left to fend for themselves. But at the local level, a few cities are stepping up. New Orleans is one to watch. At the end of April, voters will decide if their tax dollars will fund dedicated support for child care, with its Yes for NOLA Kids millage (a percentage of property value), which would create local child care infrastructure in the absence of more federal investment.

The 20-year measure is a stake-in-the-ground in a state ranked 48th in the national Kids Count data book on measures of economy, education, and health. Just a third of infants and toddlers in New Orleans’ economically disadvantaged families have access to publicly funded early care and education, according to Jen Roberts, CEO of Agenda for Children, a 40-year-old child advocacy nonprofit in southeast Louisiana. “But the city has been making strides to fix that,” Roberts said. In 2017, New Orleans was among the first of a handful of municipalities that invested local dollars into a municipally funded infant and toddler program. It has expanded to serve over 400 children today using matching dollars from the state of Louisiana. “Securing a local sustainable funding source to expand programs and services for low-income families,” she said, “would be game-changing and set a new national model for investment.”

The proposed millage will cost a taxpayer with a home value of $200,000 about $5 per month. With that revenue, New Orleans will fund over 1,000 early childhood placements and wraparound supports, including mental health consultation, child screening, and teacher professional development. Funding will also support expansion work to meet the added demand, as well as outreach and enrollment support for families. Those eligible for the program will meet eligibility criteria, earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Proposition Language:

“Shall the City of New Orleans be authorized to enhance early childhood development and education in New Orleans through the levy of a special tax of 5 mills on all taxable property within Orleans Parish for a period of twenty years (January 1, 2023 through December 31, 2042), with all tax proceeds dedicated exclusively to programs and capital investments that provide childcare and educational opportunities for Orleans Parish children who have not yet entered kindergarten, and with an estimated collection during the initial year of $21,274,959 if the foregoing special tax is levied in full?”

While pre-K is often the subject of local advocacy efforts, the New Orleans millage also provides funding for infant and toddler care, supporting this critical stage of development. Advocates in the city have been working to educate voters on the research about the benefits of high-quality early childhood education and the multiplier effect of investing in the early years. They have been noting the research that shows the yield, a 7-13 percent return, depending on which study you read. Few investments can boast such transformative results, which has helped to make early childhood investment a largely bipartisan issue.

New Orleans is not the first community to invest in critical child care infrastructure at the local level. Starting in 1946, the Florida legislature positioned Pinellas County to dedicate property tax dollars to fund a host of early learning and related services for its citizens. While it was the first in the nation, 11 other Florida counties have followed suit, developing similar strategies to invest in the critical needs of young children and their families. The Children’s Funding Project helps state and local leaders develop funding strategies that benefit children and youth, and tracks legislation that supports these kinds of investments.

Sales taxes, ”sin” taxes (such as taxes on gambling, cigarettes, and now marijuana), and income taxes have helped a growing list of 40 plus municipalities across the country make meaningful investments totaling $1.47 billion dollars per year for early childhood and youth-related programs. In Kent County, Michigan, this support is comprehensive, including maternal home visiting, play groups, lead testing, and breastfeeding support, with parents at the table in deciding which organizations receive funding. Louisiana’s Ready Start Networks position local communities to develop early childhood blueprints that support innovative funding strategies like the millage proposition.

And the need is urgent: During the pandemic, the labor force has receded in record numbers, bringing to the fore the critical, yet fragile state of the decentralized and underfunded child care sector. A more silent impact anticipated by educators and parents is the cost of learning lost during this time.

However, the costs for quality child care have been untenable for most families for decades, particularly historically marginalized ones. President Biden’s State of the Union estimate of $14,000 for a year of infant care was conservative, yet still striking. Quality child care is the single largest expense for families with young children who are among the 57 percent of New Orleans households who are considered “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed” families.

With costs for care so high, why is a taxpayer investment needed? Quite frankly, the math has never worked in child care, and this has come at the expense of those working in the sector, and importantly, the children who experience a lack of routine, consistent, experienced teachers. The small classroom sizes needed for supporting young children means narrow profit margins for its often mission-driven owners. Child care teachers have subsidized the cost with low pay that results in over 50 percent of them relying on public assistance to survive. A high turnover rate means a lack of consistency, and disjointed relationships for children at best. Early childhood teachers in these roles struggle to make ends meet: 20 percent of those surveyed by the University of Virginia meet the standard for clinical depression. Early childhood teacher turnover and compensation is so pressing and urgent that Louisiana recently studied the issue and made recommendations to its legislature and to local communities to address it.

The early childhood “system” of fragmented, underfunded programs does not work for families, educators, employers, or children in its current form. And in the absence of federal funds, communities may be left to their own devices to build a better one. The good news is that the Children’s Funding Project offers a bit of a blueprint for local investment. New Orleanians will vote on April 30 in response.

Emmy O’Dwyer is a New America Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX) Fellow. She is the founder and principal of Advancing Communities for Equity, a consulting firm committed to expanding high quality learning opportunities for every child.

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