By Tyler Schneider
Governor Mike Parson made child care expansion a priority in this year’s state budget by approving a $82 million boost for community-based childcare providers and public schools to increase the number of pre-k slots available to a state with a desperate need. The funding is the largest in the state’s history and is a step to ensuring every child from birth to five has access to quality care and education.
The expansion comes as a piece of a much larger pie of the Show Me State’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget, with $160 million in total pledged towards fortifying Missouri’s prekindergarten and childcare systems in various capacities. Parson had signed the budget on June 30, with all but a proposed package of additional child care tax credits being left on the legislative table.
The $82 million in new pre-K grants includes more than $26 million for community-based child care providers and more than $55 million to districts and charter schools for 4-year-olds. The grants are available now.
“Early childhood care is essential to our state’s success, and we’re honored to champion this historic investment in our families and future generations of Missourians,” said Mike Parson, Missouri’s Governor. “If we are to truly make a difference, it starts with our children, and this landmark funding will support our work to ensure every Missouri child is supported with the right tools to succeed. ”
Torree Pederson, President and CEO of Aligned — a bipartisan education non-profit coalition of business leaders who seek to influence policy to “drive educational transformation efforts” — had seen the writing on the wall for at least a decade now.
“When we started the organization in 2012, it was very clear that early childhood education was not front and center in Missouri. In fact, we were close to the bottom with respect to state support for any of that zero-to-five early childhood space,” Pederson said. “This year’s historic investment, $82 million increase in this space is basically a long term investment for the whole state of Missouri. It’s huge. It’s a capstone moment, in my mind, for Missouri’s kids.”
“I think more people realized the difficulty and the need, quite frankly, for childcare and that it’s not just babysitting. It is truly education—early childhood education—from birth up to (age) five students. Governor Parson and his team have always been on board with that vision,” Pederson said.
“Part of that recognition was making people more aware of the fact that the first five years of a child’s life—when 90% of their brain development occurs—is a point at which Missouri was investing next to nothing,” Pederson said, adding that “education is a cradle to career spectrum.”
Additional research by Childcare Aware of Missouri provided a map showing that 77% of Missouri’s 114 counties could be designated as “child care deserts” — defined as “an area where there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot or, in some cases, no licensed slots at all.”
For his part, Parson’s own director of policy, James Birch, told the Missouri Chamber the state’s child care industry can now serve just 39% of children under the age of six. Many of these findings came before the pandemic, which saw the Show Me State’s access to affordable care decrease at about the same rate.
In some instances, districts like Center School District have been ahead of the curve on the state’s latest movement towards greater overall equity. In 2019, voters had approved a bond package which in part went towards drastically improving the district’s Yellowjacket Early Learning Center.
With an average of 120 enrolled at any given time, district spokesperson Rich Chambers said the district has been at capacity for several years, at least. He said the staff has even picked it up in some areas lately as the head start numbers continue to gradually increase.
“I think we have to kind of get ahead of the curve,” Chambers said. “I know that, in terms of quality, we have outside assessments that really tell us that we’re doing a really, really good job.”
As part of a greater collection of policy-minded groups dubbed The Missouri Champion of Children Coalition, Aligned continues to advocate for the proper distribution of these funds even after they’ve been approved by policymakers.
“It’s one thing to pass a bill and have money available—it’s another to actually help people figure out how to do it,” Pederson said. “Our team worked on the creation of a document which will help providers and school districts navigate pulling down these dollars and getting access to them.”
“We will continue to focus as an organization on increasing access until every family and every child that wants access has it in this space, but we’re also really, really monitoring the teacher recruitment and retention pipelines to make sure that is there,” she added.