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Financial Pain Of Pandemic Shutdown Could Stall Gains in Early Childhood Education

Mia Mims, 4, poses for a photo as her mother drops her off for preschool Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 in Affton.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Mia Mims, 4, poses for a photo as her mother drops her off for preschool Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 in Affton.

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus could roll back state investments in pre-K made since the last recession.

That’s the dire warning in the latest preschool yearbook from the National Institute for Early Education Research, which looks at states’ spending on pre-K during the 2018-19 school year.

“We know in the last recession, enrollment, spending and quality standards were cut, and that spending impacts continued well after the economic recovery was underway,” said NIEER director Steve Barnett. “In most states, pre-K is discretionary. But it needs to grow and improve, not just hold on.”

But in many states, there isn’t much to cut. Just 6% of 4-year-olds in Missouri and 1.5% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded pre-K last year.

Some growth

Still, 6% is better than 2%, which is the percentage of Missouri 4-year-olds who were in state-funded pre-K just one year prior, in 2018. According to NIEER, Missouri added 3,410 preschool seats during the 2018-19 school year. NIEER also praised the state for meeting another quality benchmark – Missouri Preschool Program teachers and assistants all get at least 22 hours of professional development and coaching.

But the state is also moving away from the Missouri Preschool Program. Starting in 2018, school districts and charter schools who had participated in the past could count a small percentage of pre-K attendance under the foundation formula, which is how K-12 education is funded, instead of getting training grants. 

Unforeseen and daunting budget constraints caused by the pandemic shutdown leave little optimism for maintaining current spending levels, let alone any future investments in early childhood programs.

“As pre-K programs tend to serve lower and middle-income families, that means that cuts to pre-K like this exacerbate educational inequality,” Barnett said.

The recession sparked by the pandemic will likely send more people into poverty possibly making them eligible for subsidized pre-K programs such as Head Start. At the same time, though, there will be less money available to pay for those programs.

“The coronavirus has crystallized in the minds of more people the absolute divisions between socioeconomic groups and between races,” former Kansas City Mayor Sly James said.

James tried unsuccessfully in his last year in office to pass a tax to expand preschool in the city.

“We are going to continue to have these problems until we make sure that every child has an even start at birth,” he added. “That’s a whole lot more than pre-K, but pre-K is the one thing we have to even try to even it out.”

Lost momentum

Though licensed child care is not the same as high-quality early childhood education, it’s often the only affordable or proximate option for working parents in lower-income communities.

Less than half of low-income children in the St. Louis region have easy access to high-quality childcare, according to a recent report from Washington University’s Clark-Fox Policy Institute.

The report, the latest in a series looking at the state of early childhood education in St. Louis, adds to the chorus calling for more investment in the region’s youngest residents as a way to reduce poverty and improve economic outcomes over the long term.

“If we’re going to recover, financially, from this pandemic, access to quality affordable early childhood education is going to be a critical piece,” said Gary Parker, director of the Clark-Fox Institute.

Momentum has been gathering in St. Louis to expand preschool spots, in part through a plan to capitalize on the limited state funding available to fund pre-K for low-income students. 

State funding for the pre-K reimbursement was just over $14 million. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has already reneged on more than $20 million in funding designated for education as he tried to balance a budget sheet amid a sizable drop in tax revenue after the pandemic hit.

Advocates of early childhood ed were also working to convince St. Louis County voters to increase taxes to pay for more children to attend preschool. 

WEPOWER, a community organizing nonprofit, released a “playbook” in January for expanding pre-K in St. Louis County. It calls for a half-cent sales tax increase that the group says would raise $84 million a year for early childhood education.

WEPOWER was trying to collect petition signatures to put an ordinance on the ballot. That work has largely halted because of social-distancing requirements, putting the effort at risk of coming up short, something that happened to efforts to legalize recreational marijuana this year.

But a tax levy for preschool expansion could be put on the ballot by legislative decree.

“So I wouldn’t say the campaigns are dead in the water,” Parker said, while noting Wash U is not directly part of the lobbying effort, “but they are candidly struggling.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can follow her on Twitter @ellemoxley

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Elle covers education for KCUR. The best part of her job is talking to students. Before coming to KCUR in 2014, Elle covered Indiana education policy for NPR’s StateImpact project. Her work covering Indiana’s exit from the Common Core was nationally recognized with an Edward R. Murrow award. Her work at KCUR has been recognized by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and the Kansas City Press Club. She is a graduate of the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism. Elle regularly tweets photos of her dog, Kingsley. There is a wounded Dr. Ian Malcolm bobblehead on her desk.