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Missouri’s early childhood education needs more money but lawmakers split on funding

Updated: 2014-02-10T13:05:07Z

By MARIE FRENCH

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

— Jennifer Stone struggles to keep up with child care for her children. She receives some state assistance but it’s still one of her biggest expenses. She said she really needs a second job but worries any increase in her income could cause her to lose the assistance.

“If I got a second job I’d probably get cut off,” Stone said. “It’s a little bit more affordable for me so my kids can go to the center… I’ve been behind on daycare several times, even with the assistance.”

When families start earning more then 123 percent of federal poverty guidelines – or about $2,400 a month for a family of four – they are no longer eligible to receive the full child care assistance benefit in Missouri. But under a proposal that’s part of Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget, that limit would be raised to make about 1,200 more families eligible for assistance.

The child care assistance program pays a set amount for a children’s care while a parent is working, in school or in a training program. The change would increase eligibility and raise the amount child care providers are paid.

The $10.3 million in federal funds is part of a broader effort by Nixon to increase funding for early childhood programs. His budget for FY 2015 includes $40 million in additional funding for grants to start preschools, a home-visit program and services for developmentally at-risk infants.

But although lawmakers agree early childhood is and should be a priority, funding is another matter.

Expanded child care assistance

Elaine Powers has seen firsthand how difficult it can be when parents lose state assistance to pay for child care while they’re at work or in classes. She said it’s not unusual for parents to break down crying when faced with the difficult decision of possibly leaving Lemay Child and Family Center, which she runs.

“I remember one woman asking whether she should just move back in with her mom,” Powers said. “They’re trying to do their best, they’re trying to think what else can they sacrifice or what else can they give up to make this work.”

State budget director Linda Luebbering said a drop in enrollment for the current child care assistance freed up money that should be reinvested in the program.

The eligibility limit would be raised for both the traditional child care subsidy and a transitional benefit.

The transitional benefit was created by the Legislature in 2012 and provides partial assistance to those who start earning more than the program limit. Before that, some parents ended up regretting or rejecting raises, as the cost of child care was more costly than the added income.

Powers said that still sometimes happens, even with the added transitional benefit.

“The transitional benefit doesn’t go far enough to help very many people,” Powers said. She said many parents say they should’ve turned down a raise that made them ineligible for the state subsidy, because the rate often doubled. “The additional paycheck is more than eaten up to have them pay the full cost of child care.”

Stone, 29, has three children. Two are in elementary school and only need before and after school care. But her 18-month-old stays at Lemay Child and Family Center while Stone works.

“I work a lot. That’s the sad part,” Stone said. She once got paid enough for a cleaning job she does occasionally on the weekends to push her over the eligibility limit and lost the assistance, so she cut back on that job. “It was still low income,” she said.

Under Nixon’s budget proposal, the limit for full reimbursement would be increased from 123 percent of the federal poverty level to 130 percent. Those receiving the transitional benefit would be eligible up to 182 percent of federal poverty instead of 175 percent.

Only four other states have equal or lower limits for child care assistance eligibility. Child Care Aware president Carol Scott said some parents who could use the extra assistance to get out of poverty have not been able to get help paying for child care, which would allow them to improve their situation.

“Our eligibility level for (child care assistance) has long been one of the lowest in the country,” Scott said. “You have to make so little money.”

The rate at which licensed and license-exempt child care providers are reimbursed for the eligible children would be raised by 3 percent.

That amount, based on the area of the state and the type of provider, was increased in July 2013 for licensed and faith-based providers. Before that, it hadn’t been increased since July 2008.

Powers said the rate does not cover the full cost of providing care, particularly because the center must meet higher standards since it’s accredited. “Any increase would certainly help us cover our costs and benefit families,” she said.

The federal money would also be used to expand a grant program currently focused in Kansas City and St. Louis for before and after school programs.

Preschool grants

Besides the changes to the child care assistance program, Nixon’s proposed budget includes an additional $30 million in funding for early childhood education. But those proposed increases face a challenging path with the wide gap between the governor’s and Legislature’s estimates of how much money is available.

House Budget Chair Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, announced on Thursday that the baseline for deciding next year’s spending would be the previous year’s House levels – not the governor’s budget proposal.

Education appropriations committee chair Rep. Mike Lair, R- Chillicothe, said he recognized early childhood’s importance for children to succeed in school but he said something must be trimmed. Lair said the effectiveness of programs must be evaluated.

“We don’t know what of those will survive,” Lair said. “It can’t be just about throwing money at the problem.”

The Missouri Preschool Project would see the largest increase for an early childhood program under the governor’s proposed budget, going from about $10 million to $31.7 million. The grants are used for start-up and expansion of preschool programs, both private and public, for children one or two years away from starting kindergarten.

The increase would mark the highest level of funding ever for the program, which began in 1998. The tripling of funding would mean 3,000 additional children would be served by the program on top of the current 4,000, Luebbering said.

Scott said any additional funding for early childhood programs was a positive move.

“The more positive you can make the first five years of life, the better off that child will be and the better off society will be,” Scott said.

Supporters of early childhood education point to studies showing long-term returns on public investment that result from better life outcomes for children who receive quality early childhood education.

Other funding methods

Lair said the best method for funding preschool for children would be to add three- and four-year-olds to a school district’s average daily attendance. That way, the districts could receive state funding.

That idea is not new. Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, has introduced proposals that would take effect once the foundation formula is fully funded. One would only provide state aid for preschool-age children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. He introduced the same proposals last year, but both stalled in the Senate.

“It’s a really hard bill to be against,” Keaveny said. He acknowledged that the postponement might be a factor. “It’s pretty hard to make the argument to expand the program if you’re not funding the program.”

Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, has introduced a bill similar to Keaveny’s proposal. and Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, is a co-sponsor.

Wright said both approaches to funding – through broad-based state aid and grants – have benefits.

“Either one is a substantial improvement over the status quo,” Wright said. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether the money is there. It’s whether those involved have the political will to undertake this investment of state revenue over others.”

Swan said that expanding access for early childhood programs needed to be a priority but said she’s not sure where the money should come from.

“It’s more important to make this happen than pinpoint where the money comes from,” Swan said. “I’m not set on how to fund it.”

Lair said some school districts already offer preschool programs without extra state money. “If it’s really that important, why don’t you pay for that?” he asked.

Nixon’s proposed increase also includes an additional $1 million in funding for the Parents as Teachers program, bringing it to $16 million. That’s still less than half of the $34 million the initiative, which provides developmental screenings and child-rearing instruction to parents of infants and toddles, got in 2009.

First Steps, a program for infants from birth to three years, would see an $8.5 million increase to $53.3 million. The program serves infants who have delayed development or are diagnosed with specific diseases related to developmental delays.

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