By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Public school districts could receive state money for preschool programs under a measure a Missouri senator proposed Thursday that was embraced conceptually by key colleagues but panned because of its potential multi-million-dollar hit on the state budget.
Sen. Joseph Keaveny filed two versions of his plan to fund preschool programs through the state formula that currently distributes money for K-12 education. One would provide state aid for all preschool students ages 3-5 in schools that also have full-day kindergarten programs; the other would pay only for lower-income students in those schools.
Keaveny acknowledged the cost likely would be substantial, though there isn't yet an official estimate. But he said money spent on preschool programs now could translate to savings later, when the state does not have to pay for kids to repeat courses. He also cited studies showing that early childhood education increases the chance of success later in life.
"Whatever it costs, it's well worth it to reallocate the resources to make the investment earlier," said Keaveny, D-St. Louis.
Republican Senate leaders said they like Keaveny's idea but doubt the state can afford it.
"There's great interest in early childhood development," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. But "we've got challenges that need to be addressed with our current (school funding) formula, so adding new obligations is probably going to be a difficult sell in the Legislature."
All public school districts already are required to offer special education services for children ages 3-5. State grants also are available to help public schools or private organizations establish preschool programs. But the state does fund the operational costs of preschools based on their attendance figures, as it does for public elementary and secondary schools.
Because of tight budgets in recent years, Missouri's school aid already is falling hundreds of millions of dollars short of what's called for by the K-12 funding formula. The preschool funding envisioned by Keaveny's legislation would kick in only after the K-12 formula is fully funded.
Keaveny suggested it could be cheaper for the state to fund preschools than to pay for students to repeat grades after they are held back in school.
In the 2011 fiscal year, 24,396 students repeated a grade level, including more than 15,000 high school students and nearly 6,000 in kindergarten through second grade, according to figures supplied by Keaveny's office. Based on the state's average per-pupil cost, Keaveny estimates that Missouri spent more than $86 million for children to repeat grades during the 2010-2011 academic year.
Keaveny also points to a 2006 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that asserts children who do not receive good support for cognitive, language, motor and adaptive skills and social-emotional development have a greater likelihood of later dropping out of school, receiving welfare benefits and committing crime.
Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said of Keaveny's legislation: "Conceptually, it's fantastic."
Pearce said Missouri has long neglected early childhood education and agreed that good preschool programs could save the state money in the long run.
"However, to divert money from the foundation for early childhood might be a stretch at this point with our budget," Pearce said.
Preschool bills are SB132 and SB133