By Bruce Alpert
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is accusing the Jindal administration of passing up a rare opportunity to upgrade the state's early education programs by declining to submit an application under a new $500 million federal grant program. As the deadline neared late Wednesday, about 30 states had submitted applications or announced they would soon do so. They are competing for grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million. Louisiana was eligible for up to $60 million.
In explaining why Louisiana decided not to apply, after months preparing an application, state Department of Children & Family Services Secretary Ruth Johnson said she and other state officials concluded the grant "has strings attached that will force more state and federal control on our education system."
Landrieu said she is disappointed the state would pass up "a wonderful opportunity to receive up to $60 million to support the good, but incomplete, work going on at the state and local level in early childhood education."
"As you are most certainly aware, one-third of all children under the age of 5 in Louisiana live in poverty," Landrieu said in a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal. "You must agree that they need every opportunity to advance and move ahead, so it is puzzling to me how Louisiana could have passed up this opportunity."
Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said officials from three state agencies determined the grants required an approach that wouldn't "help our kids."
Ruth Johnson is secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services. "We need to streamline the governance structure, funding streams and quality standards in our early childhood system -- and the grant would only make things worse by reducing flexibility and adding more micromanagement and regulatory obstacles," Plotkin said.
"We want less red tape, not more. Finally, this grant only provides one-time federal dollars for programmatic use, but not for any expansion of services for our children."
Under the criteria announced by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the grant competition favored states that demonstrate comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, while encouraging increased access to quality early learning programs.
It is the latest in the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" competition designed to encourage state education innovation and reform.
John Warner Smith, CEO of Education's Next Horizon, a Baton Rouge-based educational advocacy and research group, said every federal program has some conditions, but that's no reason to pass up a chance to improve the state's educational programs.
"Here we had a real opportunity to do some real good, and we didn't move forward," Smith said.
Smith, who advised the state officials working on the early childhood education grant application, said he became alarmed about the state's intentions when officials refused to provide staff to complete work on the application the weekend of Oct. 8-9.
"We still had critical work to do on the application and were told we couldn't get the staff help we needed," Smith said.
Department of Children & Family Services spokesman Trey Williams said the decision against filing an application was made by Johnson, along with officials from the Louisiana Department of Education and Department of Health and Hospitals.
Acting State Superintendent of Education Ollie Tyler repeated an argument often made by congressional conservatives that throwing federal money at a problem isn't always the solution.
"Adding more money to a system that is inefficient and mired in red tape will not effectively address the needs of our children," Tyler said.