JEFFERSON CITY • Proposals to begin providing state funding to school districts that offer preschool appear to be gaining momentum in the Missouri Legislature.
The Missouri House approved a bill that would allow districts to include preschool children from ages three to five in the number of students state funding is based upon. But the state money would only be available for children who qualify for free and reduced lunch and would not roll out to all school districts until the state’s foundation formula for education is fully funded.
Bill sponsor Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, said early childhood education would pay off as students succeeded in school, did not have to be held back and would be more likely to graduate high school.
“Our achievement gap starts before school does,” Swan said. “Early childhood education is truly an investment and an economic development issue.”
Research on high quality early childhood education programs has shown improved life outcomes for children, ranging from lower incarceration rates to higher incomes and from less use of state assistance and higher rates of college graduation. In a committee hearing on the House bill, co-sponsor Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, presented research on the disparities between children from low-income households and more affluent households.
“We’re learning more and more that the environment kids experience during these critical years from birth to 4 dictate more and more the ability to succeed in school,” Wright said. “Many kids enter kindergarten already knowing how to read. Other kids enter kindergarten literally unable to tell the difference between the front of the book and the back of the book.”
Unaccredited school districts would begin receiving money in the next school year if the proposal is passed. Provisionally accredited districts would be funded starting in the 2015 school year. All other districts would not be funded until the Legislature completely funds the state’s foundation formula.
Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said he opposed the bill because he did not think giving more money to unaccredited districts was a good idea.
“The provisions that direct the money first toward unaccredited districts is an unwise use of our money,” Burlison said. “We should not be throwing good money after bad by expanding the school districts that are already failing our students.”
Burlison also said he did not support directing the funding exclusively toward children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. He compared it to someone being stopped from using the highway because they do not qualify as low-income.
The bill does not require any school district to create a preschool program and does not lay out any parameters a district must follow. A school could offer the preschool program for all children but would only be able to count those who qualify for free and reduced lunch toward the number used to calculate state funding.
Supporters said this was a step toward expanding access to preschool but that low-income children have the greatest need.
“The return on invested dollar tends to be higher on kids who have a less enriching environment in a home context,” Wright said during the House hearing on the bill.
At that hearing, Burlison also said he was concerned about such a large expansion of government services. Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, said he thought an educational environment like preschool may not be the best for children at such a young age.
“Education may not be the only environment here,” Moon said. “I think it would be most fitting if they were retained in a home and allowed to explore as kids do in a two-parent, loving, nurturing home.”
Moon said the government should have policies to encourage such an environment for children. Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, expressed skepticism about the academic benefits of starting school earlier during a Senate hearing on this issue.
“How early should we start?” Emery asked. “Pretty soon we’re going to do pre-pre-pre-pre-K; we’re just going to take over your children at birth… Where does this stop?”
Emery said many academic benefits from early childhood education “fade out” by third grade. One of the most widely cited small-scale studies of high quality early childhood education, the Perry Preschool Project, did show the advantage in academic test scores for children who participated compared to the control group faded over time but advocates for early childhood education point out that other long-term benefits have persisted.
Sen. Joe Keaveny has sponsored a measure similar to the House proposal for several years. It was briefly debated earlier this week but got sidetracked into a discussion about the foundation formula. Keaveny said he was working on a substitute.
The House bill also includes a measure lifting the state’s ban on a rating system for early childhood programs for three- to five-year-olds and a measure to award additional performance points for districts that provide full-day kindergarten and other services for at-risk children.
The House passed the bill 126-21.
(The bills are HB 1689 and SB 538.)
Marie French is a reporter in the Jefferson City bureau. You can follow her on Twitter @mre545.