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U.S. education secretary lays out how Build Back Better would affect Missouri

President Joe Biden unveiled the social policy part of his Build Back Better plan last week. It includes multiple provisions that would affect education across the nation, including in Missouri.

The bill would expand subsidized child care, free school meals and Pell Grants for college students. It also includes a universal preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

St. Louis Public Radio's Kate Grumke spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as the Biden White House works to build support for the plan.

 U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says Build Back Better's potential expansion of early childhood education would be especially important for families.
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says Build Back Better's potential expansion of early childhood education would be especially important for families.

Kate Grumke: How exactly will the child care provisions in the Build Back Better framework work for families?

Miguel Cardona: The cost of child care prevents families from growing, it prevents many of our parents from going back into the workforce, and that disproportionately affects women. So in this proposal as we have the framework, families won't pay more than 7% of their salary [for families making up to 2.5 times the state median income], which means that it allows parents to go back into the workforce and contribute more, not only to their own finances, but to the economy.

Grumke: Schools in Missouri and across the country are already struggling with teacher and substitute teacher shortages. So I'm wondering, how are you going to make sure there are enough teachers to staff the universal preschool part of this plan?

Cardona: What we're going to be doing is having partnerships with the states. There are many states that are doing it really well, and we're going to learn from those best practices, and we're going to ensure that the providers that are there where parents have options are going to continue to exist. So it's not like we're going to be revamping and starting from scratch. Many states have great systems already.

We're going to take best practices, elevate them and with funding now available to those states that don't have a system and to the states that want to improve their programming, we're just going to see an improvement. But again, making sure teachers are getting paid a decent salary so they don't have to work two to three jobs to make ends meet. That's one way that we're going to make sure we provide jobs and we get those jobs filled.

Grumke: And speaking of paying for that in public polling, about 45% of Missourians have said they don't want to increase taxes to pay for education. So will Missourians see a tax increase because of this bill?

Cardona: Only the very, very, very rich Missourians. You know, this plan, it was specifically designed by the president not to raise taxes on people making under $400,000 for a reason. You know, people have to pay their fair share of taxes. And, unfortunately, people that are making less are paying a higher percentage. So what we need to do is just level that out a little bit to address some of these issues that are affecting working-class families. So the good news is that an overwhelming majority of families support the components of it because it helps their families. And when you add to that that it's not going to be paid for by people that are making less than $400,000, it's a win for those families and for our children.

Grumke: I saw that school meals are also going to be changing under this plan. So who is going to be eligible for free school meals who was not eligible before?

Cardona: Right, we're going to be working with USDA and Secretary Vilsack and the Department of Education to really identify, you know, to broaden the range of students that have access not only to healthy, nutritious meals during the school year, but also in the summer. We know childhood nutrition is an issue. We know that for many students, the pandemic taught us that for many students, the only time they receive a nutritious, healthy meal is in school.

Grumke: I just did a story on a school district that took a day off for mental health reasons in St. Louis, and I know educators are under a lot of pressure right now. What do you think the state of mental health is in our schools and will this bill address that in any way?

Cardona: From the beginning of the pandemic, we recognized as educators that the mental health and well-being of our students has to be at the center of the conversation. You know, we talk a lot about physical health, and absolutely we have to make sure we're utilizing those mitigation strategies that we know work. But I think the needs of our students from a mental health perspective and their social and emotional well-being must be prioritized. That's why in the roadmap, we prioritize that, the back-to-school roadmap that we put out recently.

The Department of Education two weeks ago put out a guidance document with mental health support that can be used by teachers in the classroom, principals, superintendents and entire states, because we value the importance of building back better and including social and emotional well-being as part of our regular school day. It cannot be left only when kids have an outburst or when they show that they're sad. We need to embed it not only for our students, but also for our staff as well, because they've gone through a lot.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.