Opinion: Ready for School, Ready for Work, Ready for Service

  

Last year, four retired military leaders in Missouri wrote a letter to policymakers that stated, “Ensuring young children have a strong start in life can generate many benefits in the years to come, including preparing more young people to serve our nation.” Military preparedness can serve as a proxy for college and career readiness and can also be a predictor of future success. The recent work of Missouri policymakers has and will continue to make great strides in improving the well-being of children. However, policymakers need to continue this comprehensive approach to meeting kids’ needs to ensure children and families have the supports they need for success in service or in the workforce. 

Recent Wins for Kids

Over the past few years, Missouri policymakers have adopted and implemented policies that will help Missouri kids succeed. To support healthy newborns, Missouri implemented Show-Me Healthy Babies in 2016. The program covers prenatal and pregnancy-related services for women with low incomes. Last year, the General Assembly extended its commitment to newborns and mothers by approving legislation that extends MO HealthNet coverage for mothers with a substance use disorder.

In 2016, Representative Donna Pfautsch led efforts to repeal a statutory ban on quality improvement systems for early care and education providers and create a pilot program, Quality Assurance Report, which takes the necessary first steps to help early childhood educators standardize, measure and improve the quality of services they deliver. Representative Kathy Swan led the charge to put Pre-K funding in the state’s education funding formula. Many school districts across the state, most notably Springfield Public Schools, are tapping into these new funds to expand their Pre-K education offerings. The combination of these two policies culminated in Governor Parson’s application for and award of a $6.5 million grant from the federal Office of Child Care to conduct a needs assessment, develop a strategic plan for Missouri’s early care and education system and engage with parents to gather feedback on what policies would best support the needs of families.   

The federal government recently increased its investment in its Child Care Development Block Grant funds allocated to states. Missouri expects to receive a total of $41 million over two years, which the state plans to invest in quality initiatives and critical system supports. These investments will help improve the quality of child care for thousands of Missouri families.   

Readying Missouri Kids for Life-Long Success

These actions have given Missouri a great start toward system improvements for our youngest citizens. But more can and must be done to give our current and future workforce the supports necessary for success. Families will benefit from evidence-based home visiting resources, affordable quality child care, children’s health insurance coverage, easy access to health care and community-based support services made available through public schools.

Evidence-Based Home-Visiting Programs

Evidence-based home visiting services provide education and support to parents as they navigate the challenges of raising a family. They also can help prevent child abuse and neglect and improve children’s well-being. In Missouri, there are a variety of models, programs and organizations that provide these services in communities throughout the state. As recommended by Children’s Trust Fund, Missouri’s home visiting programs could more effectively serve parents and children with increased coordination and standardization of target outcomes by the state agencies implementing and funding home visiting. Adopting these recommendations will help give families the support they need for children’s lifelong success.  

Early Care and Education

Two-thirds of children under age five live in a household where both parents work. However, the cost of full-time, center-based child care is $10,000 per year, higher than the average cost of in-state tuition at the University of Missouri. To put it another way, parents who work have to finance the equivalent cost of a college education right when their child is born or limit their involvement in the workforce, creating financial challenges for families and potential workforce gaps for employers. For many areas of the state, there are few to no quality child care options. The needs assessment, strategic plan and parent engagement from the new federal grant and the continuation of the Quality Assurance Report pilot program will help provide critical guidance on next steps in building upon Missouri’s early childhood system. Policymakers should carefully consider recommendations that result from these activities.

Children’s Health Coverage

Last year, the Department of Social Services (DSS) implemented a combination of procedural, technological and administrative changes that contributed to more than 50,000 children losing their health coverage. This is a staggering statistic and yet the statistic does not do justice to the challenges that families face and the impact on kids. To succeed in school and to prepare for future economic and workforce challenges, kids need to be healthy. Health coverage gives kids access to preventative services and treatment. DSS needs to make the administrative modifications necessary to allow easy and burden-free access to and retention of health coverage for all eligible children. 

School-Based Health

Health coverage, however, is only one piece of the puzzle. Children need to be able to easily access health care. One health access avenue that is growing in Missouri is school-based health care. Under this health care delivery model, schools can partner with a health care provider such as a community health center, hospital or other health agency to deliver health care services to students, and in some cases, the broader community. Services provided include well-care visits, sick visits, oral health care, behavioral health counseling, immunizations and chronic disease management. The model is widely utilized across Missouri as such services are available in more than 120 school districts and in more than 50 counties. MO HealthNet has provided crucial leadership and support to schools in this exciting work and it will be great to see the model evolve and grow in utilization, providing new avenues for children and also adults to get and stay healthy.  

Wraparound Services

Similar to school-based health care, many schools are starting to partner with organizations in their communities to offer services, beyond academic support, to help meet students’ needs so they are better prepared to learn in the classroom. These services, often referred to as wraparound services, can include high quality afterschool and summer learning programs, providing access to basic necessities like food, clothing and hygiene resources and year-round school-based meal programs. Supporting and providing incentives to support these partnerships will be critical to students’ success in the classroom and in the workforce.  

Ready for School, Ready for Work, Ready for Service

Continuing to focus on areas such as these will ensure that children go to school ready to learn, parents go to work confident that their kids are in a safe and nurturing educational environment and Missouri’s economy and the nation’s defense organizations have the workforce supports they need to succeed.

 

This piece appeared in the Spring 2019 Missouri Times Magazine.