The playground at Cornerstone Center for Early Learning in the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis was pristine, having been disinfected several times a day. But it was mostly empty, as the children had left for the day.
The executive director of the first accredited early child care facility in the city, Karen Lucy, sat on a picnic table outside, masked up, along with some of her board members, talking to state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, about a funding problem caused by the state of Missouri.
When the coronavirus pandemic started in earnest here in March, the nonprofit center shut down, just like local schools, other day cares, and many restaurants and other businesses. The center reopened on June 15, but because of capacity restrictions due to COVID-19, it could only take about half of its 156 students.
The state of Missouri, recognizing the need to make sure such facilities didn’t close, continued funding subsidized early learning centers as though they were at full capacity. There was already money in the state budget for this, and the money didn’t have to come from any federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds. There are four nonprofit early learning centers in the city that serve a majority of low-income families. Besides Cornerstone, there is Flance Early Learning Center on the city’s north side, Southside Early Learning Center and Downtown Children’s Center. The four facilities created their own coalition to work with the city and the state on reopening and funding issues to help them get through the pandemic.
“Communication was good early on,” Lucy says. The group still meets with the office of Mayor Lyda Krewson regularly. But the state Department of Social Services has stopped regularly communicating with the centers, Lucy says. “It’s basically nonexistent.”
The change happened in September. That’s when the state sent the early learning centers a three sentence email: “Child care subsidy payments for August 2020 will return to normal and be based on the child’s actual attendance,” it said, before explaining how payment should be obtained.
Lucy and the other early learning centers were shocked. The pandemic was far from over, they had already planned on receiving the full subsidy for August, and there was no explanation for the change. There still isn’t. When I asked the Department of Social Services why the funding had changed, spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel sent me a copy of the email that had been sent to the early learning centers. She also pointed out that Gov. Mike Parson recently made available about $10 million through federal coronavirus relief aid for day care centers to be reimbursed for COVID-19 related expenses.
Every little bit helps, Lucy says, but the change to the funding model, with no explanation, puts low-income families at risk. It may well be that in parts of the state that aren’t implementing many COVID-19 restrictions, the funding change had little effect, but in St. Louis, particularly among the largest facilities that serve low-income families, it’s been devastating.
Merideth says the change confounds him. He, too, has been unable to get any clear answers. “They have the revenue,” he says of the Department of Social Services.
For Merideth, the story of Missouri government not doing a good job funding services for poor people is an all-too-common refrain, whether it’s 100,000 children being dropped from the Medicaid rolls, leading the nation in the dubious statistic, or its low pay for state workers, or low unemployment benefits, all of which have been compounded during the pandemic.
But this is a problem he doesn’t understand. The state has the money to keep these facilities open until the city is able to safely increase building capacity. And for a governor who has claimed that local control is the best way to deal with the pandemic, instead of any statewide mask mandates or other moves, this one specifically punishes people who can least afford to be without aid.
“This pointless policy penalizes cities that make more restrictive decisions,” Merideth says. “They are being punished for serving families in need.”
Cornerstone has generous donors, and with their help, has been able to get by during the pandemic. But its board is worried about the near future — for its survival without the state funding that kept it alive this summer, but also for the future of low-income early learning centers throughout the city.
“We have to have revenue in order to continue,” says Cornerstone board president Darcy Hardwick Smith. “The clock is ticking.”
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.