Since New Orleans voters last spring approved a property tax measure to pour millions of dollars into early childhood education, the nonprofit tasked with expanding the city’s free child care program has been working behind the scenes to ensure access for hundreds of low-income families.
The vote to fund the City Seats program through a 20-year millage is expected to send $21 million flowing into City Seats beginning next year. The expansion could net New Orleans anywhere from 600 to 1,600 additional seats beginning in July and August, according to Agenda for Children, the nonprofit that manages the program’s day-to-day operations.
Such a long-term investment into early childhood care and education in New Orleans is unprecedented and could serve as a model for the rest of the country, advocates say. Nationwide, the child care industry is in crisis, with operators running on narrow profit margins or even deficits, worker shortages exacerbated by inflation and low wages, and working parents struggling to afford the high costs of care. Most public preschool funding is geared toward older children, but City Seats specifically serves kids under the age of 4.
“Being able to give parents the space to take the job without having to worry about child care, or get further education — it gives parents the space to make those sorts of long-term decisions about their career trajectories and education,” said Teresa Falgoust, of Agenda for Children. “That also puts the child on a path to further economic success beyond these three or four short years.”
The city will begin to levy the tax in early 2023, and in anticipation of those funds, Agenda for Children and the Orleans Parish School Board have already begun laying the foundation for hundreds more seats to go online by late summer. Getting there will mean rolling out an expanded enrollment process, bringing providers into the program, hiring additional teachers and increasing space at some child care centers.
Jen Roberts, CEO of Agenda for Children, said she is confident New Orleans can supply enough seats as money from the millage starts coming in. Agenda for Children has already heard from more than 50 providers in the city interested in participating in the program, and providers have already asked for 1,800 seats for the 2023-24 school year, Roberts said.
“From a program administration standpoint, I’m not as anxious because … we can serve 1,000 kids easily,” Roberts said. “We have capacity in the field, in the sector.”
City Seats began as a pilot program in 2018, serving 50 children with $750,000 in city funding. The program has grown to 400 seats across 22 providers as of this year, with $3 million in city dollars and another $3 million in matching state funds. The program also provides a measure of financial stability for participating providers, 90% of which are small businesses owned by women of color, according to Agenda for Children.
As of early 2022, the city had nearly 5,500 publicly subsidized seats for children under the age of 5, including the 400 funded through City Seats, Louisiana’s pre-K programs and other federally funded programs, according to Agenda for Children. Of those, about 700 are partially subsidized and the rest are free.
The program serves families who make up to 200% of the federal poverty threshold, meaning a family of four with an annual income of up to $55,500 would qualify, for example.
The Orleans Parish School Board will also receive a one-time sum of $500,000 to conduct marketing and outreach to families for the city’s publicly funded seats, along with $1,000 per child to manage applications and enrollment. OPSB recently voted to approve a contract with a Baton Rouge-based firm to provide marketing services, estimated at $219,000 for the first year.
Beginning in February, Parents will be able to enroll through the NOLA Public Schools district’s central enrollment system, formerly called OneApp, according to the district’s website.
Enrolling new families is just one part of the expansion process. With hundreds of new students coming into the system, providers will also need to hire more staff and find more classroom space.
Providers will receive $12,000 per child per year, with Agenda for Children providing additional wraparound services — including mental health consultations and health and developmental screenings — that operators might otherwise have to coordinate or offer on their own.
Agenda for Children will vet prospective providers on curriculum, hiring practices, capacity and demand, services for children with disabilities and English language learners, and other criteria. The group must then make granular decisions about how many seats to give providers and where to put those seats to ensure it’s financially viable for providers to expand. Geography — ensuring families don’t have to travel far to get to child care — also plays a role on who gets seats.
The program has an emphasis on high-quality care, noted Asya Howlette with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, the city department overseeing the contract, with providers required to implement low staff-to-child ratios and state policies on safety and health, and education.
About 800 early childhood teachers will be needed to fully staff the expanded City Seats program and ensure ratios are met, Roberts estimated. Some of those teachers are already in classrooms, but other money is being allocated to providers so they can recruit and retain more teachers.
Roughly $6 million of the tax revenues will go toward grants to providers for workforce recruitment and development and to expand facilities, build and create new classrooms to accommodate new seats.
To increase physical capacity, Agenda for Children is currently piloting a privately funded facilities fund. Such funding is useful for providers, who rarely have access to capital to expand or renovate given the slim profit margins they operate on, advocates have said.
The organization is talking to NOLA Public Schools, developers and others about where to locate new sites.
The Office of Youth and Families was also recently allocated $2.4 million in the 2023 city budget for wage enhancements for child care workers — money meant for the pockets of current child care employees to help workforce retention, said Jack Shaevitz, the office’s deputy director of policy. Child care providers participating in City Seats will have to follow the city’s living wage ordinance by paying covered employees at least $15 an hour in 2023.
The program could use matching state dollars to raise the rates providers receive to help offset inflation costs, Roberts told city councilmembers last month.
As of fall 2021, more than 8,000 economically disadvantaged children under the age of four lacked access to free or publicly subsidized care and education in New Orleans, according to data from Agenda for Children and the state Department of Education.
“We still have a long way to go to ensure that every single child who is eligible is able to take advantage of the seat,” Jen Roberts, the CEO of Agenda for Children, told City Council at a budget hearing last month.
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