JEFFERSON CITY • If approved by the Missouri House, a bill with limited and delayed state funding for preschool would head to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.
Proposals to fund preschool at the state level have been pushed for the past several years but this is the first time the Senate has approved one.
The measure approved by the Senate would provide state funding to schools for preschool children eligible for free and reduced lunch statewide only after the foundation formula is fully funded. The budget passed by the Legislature for fiscal year 2015 under-funds the foundation formula by about $441 million. It has not yet been signed by the governor.
The funding would be available for unaccredited districts starting in the 2015-16 school year and for provisionally accredited districts a year later.
“It’s a big day,” said Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, who has long pushed for preschool funding. “We attracted a lot of rural people to vote for the bill. It was only the extreme conservative who voted against it.”
The Senate passed the measure 25-6. Some Republican Senators expressed concern about the expansion of government. Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said he did not think this would actually fix the problem of student achievement and he was concerned about school beginning earlier and earlier.
“I just think we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” Emery said. “We’re going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time and we’re not going to do anything for the root cause of the problem, which is restoring the family structure and the cultural environment that we had until just a few generations ago.”
Emery said taking children out of the family environment would reduce the responsibility of the family and not necessarily address the lack of parent support and involvement.
School districts are not required to offer preschool programs under the bill and attendance cannot be mandatory.
Advocates for early childhood education argue that quality education at the preschool level will prepare children for success later in life both with academic and overall skills. Research indicates that children from low-income families generally enter kindergarten far behind their more well-off peers and have had less exposure to vocabulary.
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said the bill targets unaccredited districts first, focusing on the areas with the biggest problems. He said this would allow children to get a proper foundation and target the problem early on.
“Schools are a reflection of the community and if they have a community with lots violence, crime, high unemployment then those manifest in school,” Pearce said. “If we want to solve the problem, we’ve got to reach those young students before they start and give them help early on. Why wait?”
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.
Keaveny said people have recognized the importance of a strong start for children at an early age. He said the delayed rollout starting with unaccredited districts helped gather support based on the lower cost of the proposal but did not rule out trying to expand state funding with future legislation. “Our foot’s in the door now,” he said.
The House still must approve the Senate’s version. The funding mechanism is the same but the Senate proposal begins to roll out a year later and does not require the district or charter school to offer full-day kindergarten as the House-passed version did.
Bill sponsor Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, said she did not anticipate any challenges in passing the new version. The House passed it 126-21 last month.
Swan said she agreed with Keaveny that expanding funding so preschool could be more widely available would be ideal. But she said small steps had to be taken.
“This will prove that we need to expand this option to all children,” Swan said. “It works to have these little ones in school and it means helping those in greatest need first.”