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Early childhood educators are celebrating increased funding in Missouri budget

Students at Beginning Steps Daycare line up for outdoor play time on Monday, April 10, 2023, at the childcare center in Penrose.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Students at Beginning Steps Daycare line up for outdoor play time on April 10 at the child care center in Penrose.

Early childhood education advocates are excited about increased funding for pre-kindergarten in the Missouri budget headed to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

The legislature passed almost $82 million in funding for pre-kindergarten grants, but providers say funding alone won’t solve access issues for families.

There are still bottlenecks in the state’s pre-K system, said Casey Hanson, director of outreach and engagement for Kids Win Missouri.

“The nagging issue is just being able to hire the workforce,” Hanson said. “And so I think having these funds available will hopefully start to allow for that expansion and we'll see it grow over time.”

The state funding is divided into two pots. More than $55 million is set aside for school districts and charter schools, while about $26 million is available for community-based child care providers. The programs are supposed to prioritize low-income families. There is a third funding bucket that includes about $78 million in new funding to increase child care reimbursement rates, which includes some pre-K providers.

Missouri’s governor has said pre-K funding is one of his priorities. In his State of the State address this year, Parson said he wants to expand free pre-K to all low-income Missouri children.

“There is a clear need to do better when it comes to early childhood,” Parson said. “Let’s meet this moment for Missouri kids, families and businesses.”

Pre-K providers said they are facing huge demand for their programs across the city. At the same time, the pandemic led to fewer seats for kids in early childhood programs.

Gateway Science Academies is a charter school network that started offering pre-kindergarten this school year. Next year, school leaders are planning to double the number of available seats, from 40 students to 80. Superintendent Engin Blackstone said the funding will help.

“We are hearing good news that it's going to be expanded,” Blackstone said. “This is going to help our schools to provide better opportunities to our pre-K population.”

Blackstone spent Tuesday evening at an event celebrating the expansion of the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative, which Gateway Science Academies is a part of. The cooperative is an initiative of the Opportunity Trust and brings together public charter schools with early childhood partners, to utilize state funding and provide professional development and other resources.

The cooperative’s leaders want to expand access to pre-K programs in St. Louis and make sure students are ready for kindergarten, on both an academic and social level.

“We know that when children have access to high-quality instruction, when they have access to a loving, supportive, stable environment, daily, that they have better outcomes and better chances of thriving,” said Samantha March, founding director of instructional support for the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative.

The cooperative started with 120 students in 2020. Next year, it will include about 1,000 students across more than 40 providers.

Beginning Futures Learning Center is another cooperative partner that serves 120 students in the Walnut Park community in north St. Louis. The center is opening a new facility to keep up with demand.

“We are maxed out,” said Rochelle Bea, the center’s director and founder. “That's why we're trying to increase our space.”

Bea said the pandemic led to greater recognition for the importance of early childhood education, which in turn led to more state and federal funding.

“For years, this community was not recognized,” Bea said. “You know, we’re women led, majority African American women led, so it's great to see that we are starting to be recognized because families depend on us.”

Hanson of Kids Win Missouri agrees the funding windfall is great but said it’s important to still recognize the challenges the industry faces, including access and affordability for families.

“I think it's really exciting to see this level of investment and now we need to all work together to make sure that investment translates into impact for our kids,” Hanson said.

Parson has not yet signed the bills that include this funding.

Correction: A previous St. Louis Public Radio report said the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative's event was on Wednesday. It took place on Tuesday.

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