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Missouri Lawmakers Say They Want To Expand Pre-K But Not How They'd Pay For It

Children play in a preschool classroom at Commons Lane Elementary School in Florissant. The Ferguson-Florissant School District offers free half-day preschool but wants to expand offerings. Jan. 16, 2019.
File | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Children play in a preschool classroom at Commons Lane Elementary School in Florissant. The Ferguson-Florissant School District offers free half-day preschool but wants to expand offerings.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson talked a lot about expanding early childhood education opportunities in the weeks leading up to his first State of the State address and budget as governor.

“I think at some point the state will have to play a role in early childhood development and understand that’s a long-term goal,” Parson, a Republican, told St. Louis Public Radio in December.

But funding for preschool expansion was absent from Parson’s proposed budget announced last week. Parson’s mentions of the need to invest in early learning as a way to improve the state’s workforce prompted agreement from other top lawmakers in Jefferson City. That agreement starts to fragment when the question gets down to funding.

Missouri sits toward the bottom among states for spending on preschool — about $9.7 million on 2,600 children in 2017, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. And because of that, the state scores low on access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the organization’s annual ranking.

Limited state funding available to school districts to offer free preschool has left them to either charge tuition to kids younger than kindergarten — as most that offer preschool do — or get creative with finding the money, as some districts in the St. Louis area have done.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District has a long history of early childhood education, laying claim as the birthplace of the mentoring program Parents as Teachers.

About 500 students attend preschool at the north St. Louis County district. Half-day preschool is free, paid for through the district’s general funding from the state and federal governments. Ferguson-Florissant has some full-day spots through the federal Head Start program.

“Students do better long-term — socially, academically — when they’re able to go through a quality early childhood program,” said Shantana Herd, director of early education for Ferguson-Florissant.

There’s a small waiting list to get into the programs. The district plans to reconfigure its schools next fall to expand preschool options.

“We do have the goal of being able to provide quality care for all of the students within our community,” Herd said. “With that, we are hoping that the governor and other elected officials will increase that funding, to allow us the opportunity to serve all the families within our community.”

St. Louis Public Schools offers free preschool to about 2,000 students through some federal funding and desegregation settlement money padded with a lot of philanthropic support.

Last year Missouri lawmakers put $48 million in the budget for preschool. It allowed districts to use state funds for four percent of pre-K kids who have special needs. School officials said it wasn’t enough to actually expand programs.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides grants to schools to start preschool programs. But the money was cut in half last year, to $5.6 million from $11.4 million. Only 15 percent of Missouri school districts get any of it.

But in Parson’s first budget, he’s putting little money toward increasing that. The preschool grant program will remain at $5.6 million under his budget. He did recommend a $6 million bump in funding to existing state preschool programs, with half for special-education children.

So why no giant increase for universal pre-K?

“I think the state at some point will have to figure out a revenue stream, or make sure that’s an option to schools,” Parson also said in the December interview.

Parson floated the idea of collecting sales tax on internet purchases. Legalizing sports gambling or upping cigarette taxes are other ideas that have been batted around.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, a Republican from Sullivan, says he’s in agreement with the governor and Democrats on the need for investment in preschool but not necessarily on the source of funding.

“I think it’s going to take some more creative thinking,” he told the Politically Speaking podcast. “Whatever we prioritize, we will fund what we prioritize, and if we truly believe that we’re going to get benefits and see a return on that particular investment, I think we’ll find a way to fund that.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said she’s pushed for internet sales-tax collection for several years.

“Investing in early childhood is the best place for us to put our money to have a return,” said Quade, a Springfield Democrat.

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven says she’s thrilled Parson is calling for more preschool access. Now, she says, people will have to be convinced to spend money on it.

“One of those concerns is funding and making sure we help the community, help the state understand the absolute-essential need for providing early learning opportunities,” Vandeven said.

If lawmakers do agree on a major new source of revenue for the state, there will be plenty of suitors vying for a piece. And a decision to spend any of it on early childhood education probably won’t happen until next year.

St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed reporting to this story.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.