New funds sought for early childhood education

Pre-kindergarten efforts can carry big return on investment

Proponents of early childhood education pushed lawmakers to expand state funding for pre-K programs at hearings in both chambers over the past week, and provisional and unaccredited districts could see additional pre-K money this budget cycle.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee heard two bills sponsored by Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, which would add students in pre-K programs to the educational funding formula. One of the bills would add all students in those programs run by school districts, and the other would add just students on free and reduced lunch to the formula.

In the House last week, Reps. John Wright, D-Rocheport, and Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, presented their bill that adds just free and reduced lunch students to the formula.

Last year, Wright filed a bill to fund all 3- and 4-year-olds in district-run pre-K programs. The bill carried a fiscal note well in excess of $500 million, which, he said, scared off many Republicans. Keaveny also said the price tag has made a broader bill a tougher pitch in the Senate.

But supporters agree no matter the cost to the state on the front end, the long-term savings from reduced remediation, fewer dropouts, less incarceration and more active workers and taxpayers are enormous.

“All the studies indicate the return on investment is between $7 and $12 dollars for each dollar spent,” Keaveny said. “We have kids who don’t know their ABCs, can’t tie their shoes… teachers are fighting an uphill battle from day one.”

Wright said his and Swan’s bill would prioritize unaccredited districts and begin funding them in the first year, provisional districts in the second year and expand funding to all districts in the state after the formula was fully funded.

The $80 million price tag for adding free and reduced lunch pre-K students to the formula was a small price to pay for a program that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run, Wright said.

At both hearings, a long line of supporters testified in favor of the bills, including directors of early childhood centers, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, Missouri NEA, the American Federation of Teachers and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. No one testified against the bills at either hearing.

“Missouri is falling behind the power curve on workforce development and school readiness, because we don’t have a strong early childhood structure, particularly in the lower performing districts,” said Judy Dungan of the Missouri Children’s Leadership Council, a coalition of groups that advocates on children’s issues.

The early childhood education issue has been wrapped in with the debate over what to do with unaccredited districts. While an amendment to add Keaveny’s bill to the larger student transfers bill that the Senate passed last week was ruled out of order, lawmakers who may not agree on how far to go in funding pre-K programs agree unaccredited and provisionally accredited districts are a good place to start.

House Budget Chairman Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, said Wednesday he plans to include around $8 million in this year’s budget to let unaccredited districts in St. Louis and Kansas City and provisionally accredited districts expand pre-K opportunities. In the long run, however, he is not sure how far to go in providing similar opportunities to all districts across the state.

“The key is there should be pre-K in districts that are struggling, most other districts have private and public (pre-K options),” Stream said. “I’m not sure the state needs to be involved there.”

Other lawmakers questioned the claims that early childhood advocates make about the long-term impacts and point to studies of Head Start programs that show students who attended Head Start and those who did not were at the same learning level by third grade.

“Academically you don’t see a change with pre-K,” said Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar. “Are we going to be back here next year where we have pre-pre-K… and one day we just take them over on day one and the state raises (kids)?”

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