Preschools getting more attention in Missouri

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Gov. Jay Nixon awarded nearly $1 million to an early childhood education project in New Madrid on Wednesday, another event in a growing statewide conversation over early learning. He made another $1 million grant in Salisbury later in the day.

In addition to Nixon’s grants through Missouri Start Smart, this summer he signed a bill to allow Missouri to rate preschools and in the past he called for pre-kindergarten learning to be funded through the foundation formula.

These actions joined Tuesday’s certification of an initiative petition designed to raise money for early childhood education as advocates seek to raise what they see as Missouri’s lagging efforts.

“These new early childhood education classrooms here in New Madrid will create more opportunities for more families to enroll their children in a quality early learning program so that their kids are ready for kindergarten on Day One,” Nixon said.

Wednesday’s action joined $23.1 million in Missouri Start Smart grants that have been awarded for 24 projects across the state.

That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to an estimated $300 million the Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment could provide.

Falling Behind

Early childhood advocates like to point out that when it comes to funding programs, Missouri is falling behind. It’s not just nationally, but compared to neighboring states as well.

One of the first states to commit to publicly funding pre-kindergarten programs was Oklahoma. In 2015, it sent 75 percent of its four year olds to public preschools, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Missouri sent 4 percent. The rest of Missouri’s neighbors send between 19 and 61 percent of their four-year-olds to publicly-funded preschool.

“If you look at the states around us, we are way way behind,” said Judy Dungan, director of policy and advocacy at the Missouri Children’s Leadership Council.

Some legislators agree with the assessment, saying more needs to be done.

Senator Jamilah Nasheed

“I can truly say that that the state of Missouri is not doing nearly enough when it comes to early childhood education,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. “Right now, we spend approximately $37 million each year on early childhood education and that is appalling.”

Nasheed believes more early childhood education programs will help improve high school graduation rates, improve teen pregnancy rates and fight crime in Missouri.

Other advocates agree and say the state isn’t passing the test.

“We have a ways to go,” said Pam Mitchell, a board member of the St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council. “If we were issuing a report card, I would say ‘C -.’”

But Mitchell also said the state is doing some things well.

“We have Parents as Teachers, we have the Missouri preschool project, we have many wonderful early learning programs across the state,” she said. “But many of those programs are struggling. And we’re not making the proper sustainable investments in early learning that we really could.”

Funding

Most advocates agree that more funding is needed for early learning. Tired of waiting for the legislature to act, they’ve turned to the initiative petition process.

The Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment, circulated by Raise Your Hand for Kids, would raise the state’s tobacco tax to raise approximately $300 million a year for pre-kindergarten education.

Secretary of State Jason Kander certified the petition as Amendment 3 on Tuesday. Voters will decide whether to fund early childhood education this November.

“I’m just happy that we’re at this point now where we’re taking it to a vote of the people and now we’re going to let the people decide what is in the best interest of our children, who depend on us to take care of them because they cannot take care of themselves when it comes to decision making,” Nasheed said.

She said she’s going to be working hard to turn out the city of St. Louis to vote for the proposal.

Some question why an initiative petition should even be necessary to fund early learning. But Nasheed laid the blame at the feet of Republican legislators.

“Many Republicans don’t believe that early childhood is the answer and that early childhood doesn’t have positive outcomes,” she said. “I think that that’s why we haven’t seen an increase in early childhood funding on the state level.”

Rep. Cathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau
Rep. Cathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau

Republican lawmakers would disagree with that assessment. Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, chairs the House Elementary Education Committee and points out that the General Assembly has passed funding efforts. One that went into effect this year allocates some portion of the foundation formula to early education programs.

During the 2016 session, the legislature also allocated appropriations to subsidies for low income families. They hope to raise the state’s ranking in subsidies to attend early education programs from 50th out of 51. (The District of Columbia is included.)

“I think both of those things we’ve done will make a difference in raising equality for low income children,” Dungan said. “I’m very happy with the legislature’s efforts to do that.”

Also, Nixon’s has granted the $23.1 million through money that’s been appropriated by a Republican legislature.

But advocates want to see more funding to really improve the investments the state is making.

“Missouri has a lot of competing priorities. Most of us recognize that. There are a lot of good causes out there,” Mitchell said. “I think we need to really prioritize children as the most important priority and investment.”

Improving quality

Several around early childhood education think that the state is on the way to improvement with some incremental steps it has taken.

Swan is optimistic that the state is on the right track.

“I think we still have some way to go. Some groups may not be as convinced that it’s as important as those of us who are actively involved in education policy and are more exposed to some of the research and the discussions around early childhood and the value that it has on lifelong learning and success,” she said.

One bill, passed during the 2016 session, allows Missouri to rate the quality of preschools. Before the legislation passed, Missouri was the only state in the country that didn’t allow quality ratings.

Previously, Dungan said, parents relied on word of mouth and even Yelp reviews to find quality preschools.

“The state is going to be putting together a rating system that will allow parents to evaluate where they put their children based on quality measures that we know will make a difference when it comes to early childhood education,” Dungan said.

The ratings will help in several ways. Dungan said it will open the state up for federal funds. It had been excluded from pulling in some funds because it lacked a quality rating system.

“We were losing millions of dollars that we could capture from the federal government and use for other programs since we did not have that ratings system,” Swan said. 

Also, not only will parents be able to find good schools, now they can know which schools perform poorly.

“Programs, I think, are going to be really under pressure to improve their quality because suddenly all of this information is going to be widely available to our parents,” Dungan said. “I think that’s really important and we’re going to see a real big change.”

Smart investments

The quality rating system isn’t the only important thing the state needs to do. When it has funding, the state needs to make smart investments, Mitchell said.

She’s worried about “silo-ing.” She said rather than focusing on just prekindergarten education, there needed to be a collaborative approach. Not enough programs work with kindergartens and elementary schools, and vice versa, to reap the benefits.

“It has to happen in a broader sense of where are the children, where are our high needs children and making sure that funding, supports, everything is going there,” she said.

That’s because early childhood education is about more than learning the building blocks of reading, writing and math. Early learning programs focus on developing social emotional competency.

“From a child’s perspective, it means I can voice to have my needs met or I can meet my own needs or I can make friends,” Mitchell said. “When kids arrive at kindergarten and they have those skills in place, they’re ready for learning and the kindergarten teachers can begin that academic trajectory.”

Another key element in the early childhood landscape is bringing business on board. Swan spoke by phone from the National Conference of State Legislatures in Chicago. She said she heard about early learning in multiple panels without ever attending an early childhood education panel.

Businesses are learning that to develop a strong future workforce, they need to start with early learning. That’s been a big development in more communities jumping aboard the early childhood education platform nationally.

“It’s sort of become one of the topics in education that’s gaining some more attention lately,” she said. “Early childhood seems to be the [program] that there’s a little bit of buzz about.”