The Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), a non-partisan government watchdog group, recently met with news reporters to suggest steps the state could take to build a new economy. One thing CABL recommended was full funding of early childhood education for at-risk children.

The state has made a good start in this area, but it can do more. And, we have a chance to do more right now. Last year, Louisiana allocated approximately $15 million to fund a pre-K program that serves 3,000 at-risk 4-year-olds. It is estimated there are still 11,000 to 12,000 at-risk 4-year-olds statewide that do not have access to early childhood education.

Early childhood education is important for our children, and it could eventually help lift our state out of poverty. But, where do we find the money to pay for it?

Funding for early childhood education could come from the state’s recent sale of 60 percent of its tobacco settlement, which resulted in a $102 million windfall for our 66 public school districts. School districts will receive this money because the law requires the state to distribute 10 percent of annual tobacco funds to schools during years 2001 to 2003. If the state had not sold a portion of its tobacco settlement this year, the annual payment to schools would have been smaller, somewhere in the $14 million to $15 million range.

The $102 million is provided for both by statute and pursuant to a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 1999. It cannot be used for bricks and mortar, buildings, hiring or salaries. It must be used in the classroom on programs like remedial, special or early childhood education, like pre-K training for 4-year-olds.

It is each school districts decision on how this money will be spent. One option might be to allow the $102 million to be put into a trust funda savings accountand have the interest earnings on that money dedicated to funding a statewide early childhood education program.

Early childhood education works. Neuroscience shows that the first years of life are critical to a child’s brain growth and development. Pre-K classes benefit communication, as well as academic, physical and social development. Without pre-K, the average child entering kindergarten has a vocabulary of 300 words. With pre-K, the average child has a vocabulary of 15,000 words.

West Feliciana Parish has had a pre-K program for approximately 13 years. In fact, 95 percent of the parish’s at-risk 4-year-olds attend pre-K. Not surprisingly, students in this parish consistently score higher on standardized tests.

I encourage Louisiana school districts to consider using this $102 million windfall to fund early childhood education for at-risk children in our state. I also recommend that the school districts put this money in trust and only use the interest in order to see lasting results, instead of using it right away to see instant ones.