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Missouri saw drop in preschool enrollment in 2022, but new funding aims to improve access

Owner Candace King embraces Beginning Steps Daycare students, on Monday, April 10, 2023, during outdoor play time at the childcare center in Penrose.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Owner Candace King embraces Beginning Steps Daycare students last month at the child care center in Penrose. A report by the National Institute for Early Education Research found enrollment for Missouri-funded preschool programs dropped by 1,200 children during the 2021-22 school year.

Enrollment for Missouri-funded preschool programs fell during the 2021-22 school year, according to a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The organization’s 2022 State of Preschool Yearbook examines funding and enrollment for state-funded pre-K and preschools across the country. It found enrollment for state-funded preschool in Missouri dropped by 1,215 children to 5,240.

State spending for preschool programs decreased by almost $800,000 to about $26 million as the state phased out the Missouri Preschool Program that provided grants to pre-K programs.

“Missouri leaders must address this ongoing lack of access, lackluster quality and related issues of teacher retention and pay to ensure that all children have access to the educational opportunities they deserve,” the report’s lead author, Allison Friedman-Kraus, said in a statement.

The report also found that Missouri met an additional quality standard benchmark from last year’s report by updating its Missouri Early Learning Standards and Missouri Learning Standards.

The results of the report weren’t a surprise, said Casey Hanson, director of outreach for Kids Win Missouri, a statewide children's advocacy organization. She said families are still dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which kept some students out of pre-K.

“I do think there was still quite a bounce back occurring through that year, particularly, at the pre-K level,” Hanson said. “Just a lot of families making different choices throughout the pandemic, whether forced to or just doing it based on family necessity.”

Publicly funded preschool enrollment last year increased by 180,668 students or 13% across the nation. But the nation’s total pre-K enrollment of about 1.5 million children is down 8% from pre-pandemic levels.

The report also noted that Missouri didn’t provide recruitment and retention incentives for preschool teachers.

A report by the Chamber Foundation and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce found the state’s economy loses about $1.3 million annually because of limited child care as parents stay home to take care of their children.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials offer several state grants to help retain and hire workers. A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary education said in a statement that officials hope the new grants will help keep preschool teachers on the job.

Missouri legislators this month approved more than $80 million in pre-K grant funding with $55 million going toward school districts and charter schools and $26 million toward community child care programs.

Hanson hopes those funds will better reflect the needs of families.

“It can really benefit families to be able to access community-based child care that's available to them year-round in ways that sometimes public pre-K isn’t,” Hanson said. “To have some of those pre-K dollars, being able to go to those entities and really offering that option for families to have a bit of a choice to say, ‘You know, I want to stay at my community based programs that we've been at, or ‘My school’s offering a program and this works for our family.’ It does give a little bit more options.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.