JEFFERSON CITY • A feud between key members of the Missouri Legislature and state education leaders over a single state employee is putting in jeopardy an $11.8 million program serving 4,000 preschoolers.
The Missouri Preschool Project has been in peril since the start of the month when it was cut from the Senate's version of the budget. Negotiations are under way in the Senate to possibly restore the bulk of the program, but also move control of it out of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and into the Office of Administration.
The proposed cut is part of a brewing political dispute centered on Kathy Thornburg, a part-time assistant commissioner in the Department of Education hired in April 2010.
Critics, led by Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said on the Senate floor last week that Thornburg was "out of control" in her efforts to enact an early childhood education initiative that was forbidden by state lawmakers. Cunningham has repeatedly singled out Thornburg, despite the fact her actions were backed by Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro and the State Board of Education.
Specifically, Cunningham and others say Thornburg has disregarded a legislative mandate that forbids enacting a formal program to review and rate the quality of private preschools and tie that to funding.
Cunningham said Thornburg essentially did just that in a bid last fall to help the state qualify for new federal preschool funding. She said Thornburg and officials at the Department of Education also blatantly disregarded a Senate resolution last fall demanding they withdraw the grant proposal.
Officials with the Department of Education, its board and Thornburg declined to comment on the situation. But they have previously defended the department's actions.
Benefactors of the program say the political dispute and uncertainty about the future of the program is putting the needs of children and parents last.
"The bottom line is we just need money for our children and families," said Stephen Zwolak, executive director of University City Children's Center. The private early childhood facility stands to lose about $40,000 next year in funding if the cuts go through. The program enabled the center to expand by 20 students over six years and offer scholarships for parents, he said.
Lawmakers lack power to directly fire state employees, so some say they are, instead, holding the funding hostage to force state officials to fire Thornburg. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already cut nearly $95,000 supporting her salary from next year's budget.
On Monday, Cunningham told members of the Senate, "the state Board of Education has slapped us across the face, and we have nowhere else to go but the money."
She said that situation could be "easily fixed by the department," noting the problem exists "a block and a half away" — a reference to Thornburg's position in the Department of Education.
Critics say Thornburg, who also earns $70,477 a year at the University of Missouri as head of the Center for Family Policy and Research, disregarded repeated warnings from members of the Legislature by applying last year for $60 million in Race to the Top funding through the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The particular grant, called the Early Learning Challenge Grant, required participating preschools to be measured and ranked through a Quality Rating System, or QRS. Under the system, higher ranking facilities typically are awarded greater funding and lower ones are given funding incentives to improve. Missouri's grant application proposed creating a "Show-Me Quality for Missouri's Children" ranking system to satisfy that requirement.
Cunningham and other lawmakers said the Missouri Legislature has repeatedly rejected bills proposing using QRS for child cares, and this defied that mandate.
Cunningham said the rating system proposed by Thornburg would be administered through Thornburg's Center for Family Policy, which has previously administered voluntary pilot QRS programs. She said that could give her unfair authority on who got the money and how it was used.
Cunningham, one of QRS' biggest critics, told the Senate such a system amounted to 'social engineering" on children, and forced a "Kathy Thornburg one-size-fits-all" mentality on child-rearing in Missouri.
Carol Scott, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri, a longtime proponent of QRS said, "There is no one-size-fits-all approach, other than adherence to documented best-practice standards."
The dispute began last fall. In mid-September, 34 lawmakers sent a letter to Nicastro demanding her office drop its application for the federal grant, arguing the department was "knowingly circumventing the legislative process and the will of the General Assembly." The letter included a resolution passed during last fall's special legislative session that cited "a complete disregard for the legislative process."
In response to the complaints, officials with the Department of Education sent a letter to Cunningham on Oct. 5 signed by Nicastro and Peter Herschend, president of the Missouri State Board of Education. The letter said the state board decided it was in the best interest of Missouri's schoolchildren to submit the proposal.
"It will ensure all children — especially low-income and high-needs children — enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life," the letter said. "We know you share our passion for doing what's best to ensure the success of all of Missouri's children."
Missouri was not one of the states selected for the grant. An official with the Department of Education said it is not using any rating system in its current work.
Early childhood advocates say the stakes in this dispute are high.
A statewide cut would fully eliminate the Missouri Preschool Project, a program designed to give 3- and 4-year-olds greater access to quality preschool slots. Altogether the cuts would eliminate 154 public school district preschool programs and 11 private licensed programs. More than half of those children are low-income. An additional 581 are special-needs children and 60 are classified as homeless, the state said in a memo released to the media.
In the St. Louis area, Bayless, Ferguson-Florissant, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Normandy, Orchard Farm, Parkway, Ritenour, Riverview Gardens and Webster Groves school districts currently receive funding through the program, as well as a handful of independent child care centers. Riverview Gardens and Webster Groves each got $102,000 this year. Parkway, which is in Cunningham's legislative district, got $85,000.
For the Normandy district the cut would amount to one full-time teacher and 15 slots for low-income preschoolers, said Sharon Williams, executive director of teaching and learning for the district. The district would lose 15 percent of its free preschool spots, she said.
Originally, the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to reallocate all of the funding to other Department of Education programs. Parents as Teachers would have gotten the bulk of it — $10 million. An additional $1 million would have been used to reinstate the Missouri Scholars Program, a summer program for honors high school students at the University of Missouri. The current proposal, which has yet to reach the Senate floor, directs $8.3 million to be moved into the Office of Administration. It is unclear where the remaining $3.5 million would be allocated.
Early childhood advocates say Parents as Teachers is an important program, but it should not be pitted against other strong programs.
"They are setting us up against each other, and everybody is scrambling for dollars — and they are trying to build one system on the back of another system," said Zwolak of University City Children's Center.
Elizabeth Crisp of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that some of Cunningham's remarks were made in the House of Representatives. All of her remarks were made in the Senate. This version has been corrected.