JEFFERSON CITY — Missourians whose children are developing normally may have to start picking up the tab to remain in the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program.
The program offers developmental health screenings for infants and preschoolers and sends trained workers into parents' homes to provide child-rearing instruction. Currently, parents do not pay anything and can receive up to five in-home visits each year. Families classified as high-need can receive up to 25 personal visits.
Under legislation given first-round approval by the Missouri Senate, families would need to start paying some of the costs if there are no developmental delays found in the child after six visits. How much parents would pay and how billing would be handled is left to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine.
Parents as Teachers started in Missouri nearly 30 years ago and a 1984 state law required it to be offered in all school districts. It has since spread nationwide.
The program served more than 85,000 families with children ages 0-3 and nearly 61,000 families with children ages 3-5 during the last school year, according to figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Senate legislation was endorsed by voice vote last week and needs a second round of approval before it moves to the House. The Parents as Teachers provision was added to a broad education bill that includes provisions to allow year-round school schedules, teachers to accept merit pay and school districts to offer two start dates for new kindergarten classes.
State lawmakers are struggling to ensure families can continue receiving benefits despite budget recommendations that call for eliminating more than half the program's state funding next year.
Senate budget writers have recommended paring the funding for Parents as Teachers to $13 million because of falling state revenues. In the current budget that ends June 30, the program was slotted to receive almost $31 million, though Gov. Jay Nixon made midyear cuts.
Nixon, a Democrat, recommended cutting $3.4 million from the program in next year's budget. A spokesman said Friday that the program is important but that changes to how Parents as Teachers operates are needed because of Missouri's budget troubles.
"Our office supports giving school districts more flexibility to manage their own programs, including means-testing and the ability to charge a fee to families above certain income levels," Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Friday.
Sue Stepleton, the president and CEO of the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis, said it is important that services are directed to high-need families. She said that requires looking at various factors, including family income and the development of the child.
"At the current state of things, I can understand wanting parents to pay something," Stepleton said. "I think it's going to be administratively challenging."