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Mar 22, 2012 6:09 AM by AP

La. Senate backs early childhood education grades

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's mishmash system of prekindergarten and early childhood education programs would be coordinated and graded on performance under a Jindal administration proposal that received unanimous backing Wednesday from the Louisiana Senate.

The proposal would assign letter grades to preschools, streamline governance and pull funding for underperforming programs. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would devise the grading standards and accountability plans, under the bill by Sen. Conrad Appel, a Republican from Metairie.

The early childhood education measure heads next to the House for debate despite questions about whether BESE has the constitutional authority to be in charge of such a streamlining effort. A similar bill was approved Wednesday by the House Education Committee.

The proposal has been largely overlooked in the heated debate over the governor's other education ideas, including the creation of a statewide voucher program, revamping tenure laws and making it easier to create new charter schools.

Those more controversial education bills sought by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal are scheduled for House floor debate Thursday, despite attempts to pressure the governor to slow the measures down to allow for more work on the details.

Louisiana has preschool and early childhood programs scattered across agencies and funding types, some backed with state dollars and others with federal cash. More than $1 billion in state and federal money pours into early childhood education and development programs annually.

"It's a convoluted mess, in very simple terms. This system of early childhood education programs in Louisiana has literally been cobbled together over the years," Appel told the Senate.

The education department said more than 30 percent of Louisiana's 4-year-olds are in one of three state-funded preschool programs, about 41,000 at-risk children. That doesn't count children who get some type of educational training in child care centers licensed by the state social services department or childhood development programs overseen by the state health department.

The programs aren't tracked and scored like public schools, which receive letter grades based on student performance on standardized tests and other measures.

"We really shouldn't be surprised that we have a 71 percent graduation rate when ... we have a 52 percent kindergarten readiness rate. And the achievement gap really starts there," Superintendent of Education John White told the House committee.

Appel's bill would make BESE assign letter grades to any early childhood programs and child care centers that receive public funding and to create an integrated network managing and overseeing the programs.

BESE would have to create the plan by next year and the letter grading and other standards would have to begin by 2015.

"I'm not sure that under the constitution that BESE has the authority to do with what we're trying to do in this piece of legislation. I don't have a problem with what you're trying to do," said Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, who voted for the bill.

Gallot also suggested universities who teach early childhood development courses should be involved in devising the grading policies and benchmarks with BESE.

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected an attempt by Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, to remove the letter grading requirement from the proposal.

Peacock said the children in those programs are too young to be subjected to such a grading scale, but Appel said the letter grades would give parents a reasonable way to understand if a pre-K program was doing well.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders continued to press Wednesday to slow down the debate on the voucher and teacher tenure proposals.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who has supported many of Jindal's plans, sent lawmakers a list of 12 questions about the bills, saying she was alarmed at the speed at which the package was moving through the Legislature.

"I am by no means naive, and know full well the administration's political advantage of pushing legislation through with as little debate as possible," Landrieu wrote. "But this legislation will profoundly change public education by redirecting millions of dollars from the general fund to private entities without full accountability to the taxpayers."

Landrieu asked lawmakers to hold private schools that would receive voucher students to the same types of testing and grading standards as Louisiana's public schools, a provision currently not required in the bill. Several nonpartisan government groups have pushed for such requirements.

She is also concerned about provisions allowing nonprofit organizations and colleges to authorize charter schools, instead of limiting it to BESE and local school districts. She said that could jeopardize the quality of schools.

Jindal held a press conference with a dozen religious leaders who support the voucher and charter school proposal, saying it would expand choices for students whose schools are performing poorly. He said parents would be the ultimate arbiters of performance and accountability.

"Parents are not going to send their kids to these schools unless they're convinced that these schools offer the best learning environment," the governor said.

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