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Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

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This State Spotlight features Kenny Francis, Director, Policy & Child Advocacy at the Agenda For Children in New Orleans.

The Capacity-Building Hub, an effort of the National Collaborative for Infants & Toddlers (NCIT), offers consultation and support to assist Pritzker Children’s Initiative-funded state and community leaders and their coalitions to make the provision of PN-3 opportunities and services more equitable. The goal, by 2023, is to help states and communities reduce by 25 percent the gap between the children and families served by high-quality programs and the children and families who want the services but don’t have access to them. The Hub aims, by 2025, to help states and communities decrease the gap by 50 percent. The Hub will progressively grow its efforts to increase the knowledge of all state and community leaders by sharing promising strategies and resources other states are successfully using to improve maternal health, birth outcomes, and infant-toddler well-being.

The State and Community Spotlight is an ongoing opportunity to share the work happening at the state or community level and foster connections between grantees.

What big PN-3 goals is your community focused on?

Agenda for Children:
The overarching goal of our coalition’s campaign is that over the next three years we increase access to high-quality early childhood education and services for children ages 0-3 in low-income families in New Orleans by 25% or roughly 2,500 children.

We will be working collectively towards this goal by employing the following core strategies:

1) Increasing the quality of our existing child care providers, with a specific focus on infant/toddler care and family child care.

A big part of our strategy is focusing on prioritizing infant/toddler teachers for practice-based coaching, professional development, training, and other types of improvement supports for folks who are either unrated or approaching proficient in our state’s quality rating system, and who serve low-income infants and toddlers, to help them raise their standard.

In addition to this, we plan to expand the use of something we created at Agenda for Children called the Early Childhood Opportunity (ECHO) Fund. The fund was created out of a desire and need to have more flexible dollars available to help fund quality improvement initiatives. So, there's a part of our strategy that is specifically focused on growing the ECHO Fund and using it to make investments in the sector that we know increase quality and, therefore, access.

And then the third part of that quality improvement strategy is to pilot and then expand to working with family child care providers to increase the number of kids being served by high-quality FCC providers.

COVID has changed the world and how we and families think about child care. Something we’ve really underlined since the pandemic began is how can we be a part of getting FCCs “above ground,” regulated, and supported in a way that makes them more accessible to more families. We believe they are and will increasingly be an important resource for families as they navigate our new normal. And I think that families’ mindsets about what they see as their preferred method of service delivery of high-quality care are evolving as we speak. As we all should recognize, the pandemic won’t abruptly end when a vaccine is released. It will, however, set off a whole new set of questions and challenges: How many people will take it? How effective will it be? How long will the immunity last? How comfortable will parents ever be with traditional group care moving forward?

I think family child care is going to become an important child care setting to ensure that we have quality options for our families. It was already a part of our work plan when we originally applied but COVID has emphasized even more our desire to focus on it.

2) Securing sustainable public funding for new 0-3 seats.

We aim to specifically increase access for infants and toddlers because it is within this demographic that we see our greatest need: less than 16 percent of low-income infants and toddlers in New Orleans have access to a publicly funded seat despite child care being the single biggest expense for their families. Due to the size of the need, we are going to be working on this at all three levels of government.

Locally, we currently have an allotment of funding from our municipal government to fund early childhood seats through a program we administer called “City Seats.” The program serves about 200 children and provides wraparound services, funded by a $3 million budget item that was advocated for by our coalition over a number of years. Right now, we are engaging in a campaign to pass a local measure that would dedicate a portion of property taxes to solidify this very precarious funding. This is another COVID lesson that we learned the hard way; right now, that appropriation is sort of a voluntary appropriation by the city's current executive, our mayor. With the campaign we're working on right now, this would make a portion of the funding part of a 30-year property tax renewal on the ballot in December.

You have to stabilize before you can grow. We want to stabilize what we have so that we are sure that families will have access to this because every year it’s as though we have to say to families "The program exists right now. You have a seat right now and we will see about funding next year." That doesn’t give families the kind of stability they need and deserve; continuity of care for both the family’s and the child’s sake is paramount to us. Getting this millage passed would guarantee that funding for 30 years. Then, obviously, the goal from there would be to grow the program even more. And so, the millage proposition and securing a renewable source of funds is a big part of the strategy locally.

Parallel to this work is our advocacy at the state level regarding the Louisiana Early Childhood Trust Fund. This fund was created through previous advocacy work of members of our coalition and provides 1-to-1 matching dollars for ECE (when the fund has money in it) to local municipalities that have raised funds. So that $3 million local investment I noted earlier can be turned into $6 million if all goes well. Right now, the trust fund will receive revenue from: 1) A portion of taxes that Harrah’s, our land-based casino; 2) The eight percent tax that our legislature passed on fantasy sports betting; and 3) The tax our legislature passed on the sale of medical CBD oil. As of now, none of those three things are going to add up to a substantial amount of funds. But all of them could potentially be real money-producing things over the next couple of years, particularly CBD oil and potentially fantasy sports. As those things grow and produce more revenue, more dollars can be pushed into the trust fund to be available for us and communities across the state. One of the things that's really good about the CBD oil strategy is that is puts us already on the path to ensuring that new revenue created by gradual marijuana legalization is steered to the trust fund. Our coalition pushed for this as it creates a foundation to work from with legislators.

On the federal level, we are working to ensure that we are maximizing and getting as much as our state can possibly draw down on investments like Early Head Start, Head Start and the Preschool Development Grant.

3) Increasing awareness of the importance and benefits of early childhood education.

This one speaks for itself, but the focus here will be on continuing the work of educating elected officials and the public about the importance of ECE, the benefits it provides our community, and the sheer enormity of the need. We also are going to be working with community partners to grow the developmental knowledge and capacity of parents.

What are your primary challenges in achieving these P-3 goals?

Agenda for Children:
Due to COVID and what will likely be years of financial impacts, the challenge is going to be the defensive mode we are in, in terms of trying to protect funding that has already been allocated at both the state and local level. It's going to be quite a challenge to continue to protect funding from any future cuts or rollback of funding. And it's going to be an even bigger ask to get funding increased in these times.

I think the second challenge is that the reality is, we're living in a much different world regarding families’ desires and demands for access to early childhood education. I don't think that people think child care is any less important now. In fact, COVID has actually really underlined the value of quality child care. But I do think the pandemic already has and will continue to have parents thinking differently about their child care preferences.

If we're creating a bunch of quality seats in a setting that parents are uncomfortable with, that obviously doesn't help the community we're trying to serve. So, I think that one of the challenges is going to be trying to make sure we keep a pulse check on what will probably be a continuously moving target on parent preferences. We’ll have to consistently ask ourselves, are we expanding the seats that families actually need and want right now?

The third biggest challenge is that COVID has had an enormous impact on the child care sector, FCCs, and typical licensed centers alike, as well as on the workforce. Expanding services at a time when, arguably, the sector is going to contract, is challenging. What we've already seen is a lot of providers going out of business and a lot of the workforce deciding that this work is just too risky for too little money right now. What we've already seen is people going into survival mode rather than really being worried about quality right now. And that will probably be true for quite some time in terms of thinking about our goal of increasing the quality of care that families have access to by improving teachers, centers, and providers.

Another goal we have is to increase the knowledge base of adult caregivers. And even that's going to take a hit in terms of people's interest because they're just worried about keeping their kids alive right now. And so, I think the challenge that we're going to be working through is trying to expand and improve upon a sector that is going to be contracting (barring a financial bailout from the federal government, on the scale of what they did for the banks and airline industry). Barring that, we're going to see the sector contract in a lot of ways in which we're trying to expand. It will be challenging indeed to try to keep the contraction as small as possible and then also expand.

In terms of stakeholders, who makes up your coalition? And how are the community and state coalitions different?

Agenda for Children:
Our local-level coalition is made up of us, Agenda for Children, as well as the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, which works statewide specifically on prenatal-to-three policy. United Way is part of it, which is where we get a lot of our private partners from. We also have included folks such as the New Orleans Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Ready Louisiana Coalition, both of which are large coalitions of different types of organizations including those that work directly with families and providers.

I'm not sure if this is true in most of the communities that Pritzker is working in but our coalition at both the local level and the state level are actually the same players, just with different people leading. Policy Institute is taking the lead on the state-level coalition. We're taking the lead on the local level one. But the players are largely the same. The only difference at the state level is the Department of Education and the Department of Health are intricately involved in a way that they are not engaged at the local level.

How are you supporting families of infants and toddlers, and pregnant women who face significant barriers to supports and services?

Agenda for Children:
The work I previously described on trying to increase access to both quality of care and seats is equity work; the families that would qualify for those seats are low-income families. These are families who already have a high barrier to access to care, financially and otherwise. We are prioritizing what would be considered a high-risk group for all the services both in terms of where we're focusing our training on with the existing providers and also where we're trying to create new seats and for whom. We are doing this work specifically with families that are under-resourced and really building equity by pushing these resources to them.

The work of trying to expand FCCs is related to equity as well. In the communities that really need them, you're less likely to see them - and less likely to see high-quality options. For a lot of really obvious reasons, if you’re someone of means, you have many more types of child care options. And one of the options that can be unavailable to low-income families is a quality FCC provider. So that's part of what we're trying to expand.

Another way that we're trying to serve families who face significant barriers is on the parent education front. Our goal is to increase the capacity and the knowledge of adult caregivers to provide high-quality developmental support for their kids and promote school readiness.

Tell us about the working relationship between the state and community.

Agenda for Children:
I think our Pritzker work compared to that of others is different in that our state and local work are very aligned because the coalition I'm talking about was already in existence. We've all been working together for years now, pushing these goals. Our goals are not new goals for us. They are add-ons to existing goals of the work that we were already doing. Having Pritzker support has really allowed us to expand the work, which we’re really excited about. For example, we will be able to work much more expansively on the FCC work and the parent education piece whereas that wasn’t possible before given the resources and capacity we had. Also, having Pritzker involved has allowed us to work much more closely with the state government. The Department of Health and the Department of Education are both much more involved than I think they would have been without us all being part of this initiative together. That's really promising and exciting. Having as intricate parts of this planning and execution process two of the biggest state actors - the Department of Ed and the Department of Health - that could really influence policy and accelerate the initiatives that we're trying to push.

Is there anything else that you would want other coalition members to know about your work? Any advice? Any pitfalls?

Agenda for Children:
I would say two things to other coalitions. One is I think the best advice that I have gotten doing this advocacy and policy work is there is no such thing as a “good time” or the “right time” to push for any of this. There's just no such thing as that. The “right time” is when you have the energy and capacity to push because there's always going to be something; there's always going to be some election that somebody doesn't want you to interrupt; there's always going to be some localized or not localized economic situation that will make politicians say, "We don't really have the money for this." There's always going to be something. And so, as advocates, I strongly believe it's our job to push things to the point where action is necessitated. What we have found out over time is that when do, then generally something happens. And either you find out that a positive development is coming and you've made some progress and you can think about how to make even more progress or you find out that strategy is not going to work and it's time to try something else.

I think a perfect example of this, is the millage that we're working on right now. When we brought up the idea of a millage a year ago, we heard every excuse under the sun about why it was a bad idea to try it and why it was a bad idea to try it specifically in 2020. We went from "It's a nonstarter" to "It's on the ballot on December 5; please help us pass it" in the same year, and during COVID. So, given that it’s never a good time, my advice is to make your own timing.

Second, make your own timing by having a really strong coalition. I think that everything that we have done so far and everything that we're going to do comes through the strength of our coalition. Our coalition is over a hundred diverse organizations strong. There are people from somewhere between five and ten organizations involved in the nitty-gritty details. But when the day comes and it's time to take action, there are over a hundred different organizations - and different types of organizations - that we can reach out to. We can reach out to private funders, foundations in and around our local community and state, state government and local government partners, private business partners, non-profits, providers, and other child-serving organizations. The strength of your coalition is really going to be what moves things. We've created a coalition that locally cannot be ignored by our elected officials and policymakers.

Focus on the diversity of your coalition. Try not to have just the same old choir. Those people are going to be there, but how can you make it a little bit more diverse? Who can you bring in that brings a new angle, new leverage, and influence over policymakers? When you build that, that’s when you start to really see progress.

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