The cradle will rock? Legislators look to slash funding for Parents as Teachers
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2010 - Right now, a lot of angry people are venting on Facebook.
There's this one: "I'm not an educator, but a very concerned and thankful parent. PAT is a wonderful program that has benefited both my family, as well as my sister's. I've kept my sanity (mostly) through my son's terrible twos, but most importantly my nephew's hearing impairment and my niece's autism were caught early by their PAT educator."
And this one: "I am a 12-year educator in a very rural community of 1,000. PAT is all we have for our little guys. Please don't stop calling and e-mailing ... let Jeff City know we are outraged. These kids are our future."
And this one: "This is just awful ... I got the call Monday afternoon from my parent educator telling me she couldn't see us anymore this year. I'm very upset about this, she was the only one that I could trust to tell me if my son was developing correctly."
As of April 13, "Save Missouri Parents as Teachers Program" had 2,789 fans encouraging each other to call their legislators and tell other families what's happening.
And what's happening is this -- Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee cut more than half the budget of Parents as Teachers, to $13 million from $31 million. (The budget goes to the full Senate for debate next week.) The 25-year-old program founded in Missouri has served 3 million children since 1985.
PAT offers free services to interested families from prenatal development until kindergarten. Its goals include helping parents understand early childhood development, detecting developmental delays and health issues, preventing child abuse and neglect, and increasing school readiness.
If the budget cuts are approved by the May 7 deadline, 1,300 parent educators will lose their jobs and fewer families will be served with fewer resources, says Pat Simpson, marketing communications director with PAT's national center in St. Louis. In addition to the budget cut, families with higher incomes may be required to pay for the services instead of receiving them for free.
"It's a huge cut. It's a devastating cut. It's a Draconian cut," Simpson says. "The impact is going to be devastating to the state."
But at a time when almost every department in state government is feeling the impact of the economy, no program may be immune.
"Do I like it? No, but I don't like the whole budget crisis either," says Kathy Thornburg, assistant commissioner for early and extended learning with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "And there are many services in many departments, including the Department of Education, that are getting really unfair cuts in terms of needs of children, families, mental-health issues. It's just a hard time. So, yeah, I'm disappointed in the cuts, but we'll take what we get obviously and then have to think about how best to prioritize and use those dollars."
If the budget cuts are approved, what will happen to Missouri's prize program, which has long been a favorite on both sides of the aisle and set a nationwide standard? What will that drastically reduced program look like, and will middle-class families pay for it?
Simpson, with PAT, wasn't quite willing to go down the road with that last question just yet.
"It's not over until it's over," she said.
BORN TO LEARN
In 1985, the Missouri General Assembly mandated that every district in the state offer Parents as Teachers for free for 10 percent of families with children up to age 3.
At that time, Tresa McCallie became the PAT district coordinator in Kirkwood.
"They said if I could reach 39 families, they would be happy," she says, "and we went close to 200 families the first year, and it just continued to grow."
One year later, Tina Watson learned about the new program.
"I had a baby in 1986 and when you come home from the hospital, they give you a bag of goodies and in that bag was a magazine with an article about a new program that was starting in Missouri," she remembers.
Watson signed up for Parents as Teachers and every few months her parent educator stopped by her Webster Groves home and talked about development, any concerns the new mom might have and inexpensive ways to enhance her child's development.
Those were different things than she was getting from the doctor.
"When you go to the pediatrician, their job is to look for disease and injury, physical growth, they don't really have much time to talk about your child's well-being, emotional, physical, are they hitting all those milestones?" she says. "Where the parent educator sits down for about an hour and really looks at your child from top to bottom, inside and out. That was so important as a first-time mom."
Watson went on to become a parent educator, a job she's performed for 23 years, and all three of her children went through the program.
"They are fabulous examples of what having a PAT mom and dad is all about," Watson says. Her children, now 24, 22 and 20, all got straight As and college scholarships.
"I never would have got them to where they are today without the PAT curriculum."
That curriculum has been through some revisions over the years, but it's mostly stayed the same, Watson says, and she's often amazed at how spot-on it is and how many families with different backgrounds benefit from it.
"It's free and voluntary to all families regardless of income, race, anything," she says. "We served teen parents, we served professional people."
A LONG-TERM INVESTMENT
During McCallie's time with PAT, the program had three outside, independent evaluations.
"And what we found is parents who were actively involved, their children did better with social skills, language skills, problem-solving skills."
Further evidence of the success of home-visiting programs is found in research from the Pew Center on the States Home Visiting Campaign.
For every dollar invested, they report, evidence-based home-visiting programs offer a return of $5.70.
"Mothers in home-visiting programs are more likely to deliver healthy babies, are less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system and their children are less likely to suffer child abuse and neglect," the campaign states on their website. "The results of quality home-visiting programs are clear: fewer young children in our expensive social welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems, with considerable cost savings for states."
John Schlitt, director of the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, says Pew stays away from recommending programs, but successful programs are voluntary, reduce isolation for parents, offer community resources, look at child development and give educators the chance to see a child in their own environment and make sure that it's a safe one. Assessments are also important as most of a child's cognitive development happens by the time they're 3.
And all of the programs are free.
"All of the programs that we're aware of come without cost to the family," he says. "I don't know of any national model that actually requires any payment."
At least politically, free services to all families have made the program very successful in Missouri, Schlitt says, and kept it from having a stigma that programs that work with poor, at-risk families often have.
Throughout their time with Parents as Teachers, McCallie and Watson both saw families -- rich, poor and middle class -- benefit from Parents as Teachers.
"For each dollar you put in early childhood education, you save $6 for remediation," McCallie says. "So it's a cost-effective program. Plus the fact, we're talking about children, and every child needs to get the very best start in life."
Grandparents don't live next door any more, she says, and in many families, both parents work and the support network for parents has changed.
"There is no easy instruction manual for raising a child and performing the most important job in your life," she says.
McCallie retired five years ago and knows Kirkwood's program has already responded to budget cuts and will continue to with whatever happens next.
Like many families, PAT and DESE, though, she has no idea what that will be.
"At this point I can't tell you the impact it's going to have on Kirkwood, but I can tell you it's going to be a different program than we've known for the last 25 years."