FORT LEONARD WOOD — In the living room of a tract home deep inside a sprawling military base, visitor Nicole Wong opens her arsenal of teaching tricks: a plastic craft box filled with homemade puzzles, magic markers and shaving cream.
Meridyth Clark, 2, and her sister Olivia, 4, are immediately hooked.
"What does that feel like?" Wong asks as she squirts the shaving cream onto a tray and lets the girls dig in.
"Daddy!" says Olivia. "It smells like Daddy."
Wong, a visiting educator with Fort Leonard Wood's Heroes at Home program, is part of an $8 million federally funded military version of Parents as Teachers at 24 bases nationwide. The program provides free education tips for parents as well as in-home early childhood screening for disabilities and learning delays.
"See, Mom," Wong says later to Ashley Clark who sits nearby. "We're building those hand and small motor skills."
Started in 1981 as a small program for new parents in four Missouri school districts, Parents as Teachers has evolved into an international household brand, embedding itself in living rooms from Fort Leonard Wood all the way to China. It's so big, the organization has a sprawling training center in the warehouse district of Maryland Heights for new educators from around the world.
Yet the recession has placed this early childhood education powerhouse in the financial line of fire, potentially forcing it to scale back not only its reach in Missouri but also the program model it had hoped other states would follow.
As its funding shrinks, options may include — for the first time — charging middle- and high-income Missouri families for follow-up visits.
"As funding gets more lean, one of the things that we're beginning to look at is to provide some fee-based services," said Chris Nicastro, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the agency that administers Parents as Teachers' contracts statewide. "It's not something we'd like to do. We recognize the program has been extremely popular with middle-class families. But we want to make sure (it) can still be available to them."
Revenue shortfalls are dire both in Missouri and nationwide.
Last month, the Pentagon threatened to cut all of its funding for the Heroes at Home program. In Missouri, lawmakers are close to approving Gov. Jay Nixon's recommended $4.1 million cut to Parents as Teachers Missouri programs in its next fiscal year. That move, coupled with another $3.4 million cut in the last budget season and a recent $2 million withholding, would shave 22 percent off its original $34 million budget in 18 months.
Missouri is the only state in the country that publicly funds Parents as Teachers programs in all of its school districts, allowing all parents, regardless of income, access to free services.
For years, its national branch has pressed other states to replicate that funding model, arguing that the broad investment saves taxpayers millions in special education programs by catching learning issues early and sending more children to kindergarten prepared to learn.
Critics in the legislature say the organization may be helping too many in the middle class who could pay for these resources or find them elsewhere, while not focusing enough on needy families.
Parents as Teachers currently classifies 57 percent of its served families in Missouri as high-needs.
"We felt their direction maybe needed to be emphasizing the higher-needs students," said Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, the chair of the Missouri House Appropriations Committee for Education.
Sue Stepleton, CEO of Parents as Teachers National Center, said Missouri's nationally touted model would probably have to retool given what's being said by those who hold the purse strings.
She said legislators should not underestimate the program's significance to the middle class. Limiting free visits in those homes to initial screenings will lead to more children with undiagnosed learning disabilities and developmental problems, she said. "There will be less families being served, and there will be delays that are missed," she said.
The organization calculates that taxpayers save $3,700 per child per year in special education costs because of early screenings. Regardless of socioeconomic background, schools also benefit from increased parental engagement in early learning and school activities, Stepleton said.
The mandate to refocus its resources on the needy was not completely unexpected. Since August, the national branch of Parents as Teachers has been working with Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to better extend its reach, Nicastro said.
By next year, the department will offer financial incentives to entice educators to reach families with higher need. Parents as Teachers educators who visit those families would earn nearly double what they are paid to work with a middle-class family, Nicastro said.
In richer times, Missouri legislators on both sides of the aisle were drawn to Parents as Teachers because it appealed to a broad base of voters. With the exception of a cut in 2003, it has been funded at a mostly steady level for the past decade. But with the state facing what one legislator called "a drop off a budgetary cliff," priorities have changed.
"I guess it gets down to the point, can we afford that luxury in a very difficult time?" Thomson said.
News of the cuts set off a firestorm on Facebook and other social media sites popular with parents. Stepleton warned that officials are likely to feel that heat at election time.
"They will be held accountable by voters by the decisions they make," she said. "I trust they will make the decisions in that light."
Parents as Teachers' most prominent political supporter was hesitant to criticize the Missouri cuts.
"I have been through tough times in Missouri, and that is a very important, very difficult choice for the governor and the General Assembly," said Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond.
Bond, however, is still going to bat for the programs. Last month, his office helped win a temporary reprieve from the Pentagon, keeping Heroes at Home off the budgetary chopping block at least until September.
Meanwhile, belt-tightening has begun. The St. Charles School District decided last month to cap Parents as Teachers visits with district families because it feared it would not be reimbursed for extras, said Superintendent Randy Charles.
The district previously allowed more visits than budgeted because it could count on additional Parents as Teachers funding left over from other districts that failed to fully enroll their own programs. The district expects that pool to dry up soon, he said.
At Fort Leonard Wood, the news that Olivia and Meridyth might lose their visits with Wong because of budget cuts didn't sit well with their mother.
The family is still adjusting to her husband's recent return from Iraq. The Clarks have moved nine times in 11 years for his career in the Military Police.
"With moving so much and having a life almost in constant chaos, it's beneficial to have Parents as Teachers come in to remind you on how to reconnect with your children and where they should be at their age," Clark said. "It's also a special treat for the kids. It's something for them — something not just for Dad."