Proposed legislation cuts could cost some parent educators' jobs

Thursday, April 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 22, 2010

COLUMBIA — In about three weeks, Mary Ann Blakey will know if she has a job next year.

The Parents as Teachers employee, who has been with the program for 10 years, found out in an April 8 staff meeting that she and 16 other parent educators in Columbia will lose their jobs if proposed state funding cuts are implemented in May.

"I guess somehow in the back of your mind you think, 'They won't really do that,'" Blakey said.

Parents as Teachers is a national organization born in Missouri that teaches parents how to encourage their child's development from birth to age 5, and ensures that children are prepared to enter kindergarten. In 1985, Missouri funded the establishment of the program in every district in the state.

"We give (parents) the skills and knowledge, and they do the work," said Belinda Masters, Parents as Teachers coordinator for Columbia.

A joint conference committee of five Missouri House representatives and five senators will meet on Thursday to begin drafting next year's state budget. In a time of massive belt-tightening across the state, the House recommended reducing Parents as Teachers' funding of nearly $31 million last year by $3.1 million.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, however, recommended cutting the program's funding by an additional $14.7 million, resulting in a proposed allotment of $13 million for Parents as Teachers in the 2010-2011 operating year.

Masters said if all recommended reductions are approved, Parents as Teachers will lose 59 percent of its current funding statewide. In Columbia, this would mean reducing the 3,200 families the program serves approximately by half.

Though the final decision has yet to be made, "we're planning for the worst-case scenario," Masters said.

Legislators have to give the budget to Gov. Jay Nixon no later than May 7, who must approve it by May 14. If all proposed reductions take effect, Parents as Teachers in Columbia will have roughly six weeks to shave its staff from 37 to 20 employees, Masters said.

Parent educators support child development by visiting with parents at home every four to six weeks for younger children, generally during the first two to three years, and less frequently for older children. Educators bring literature for parents to read and age-appropriate games and books for children.

In addition to educating parents, the organization aims to identify and remedy developmental problems as early as possible. Parent educators screen children at 6, 12, 24 and 36 months for progress in vision and hearing development as well as language, cognitive, motor and social skills.

"If we detect areas of concern or delay, we provide parents resources for where to go next," Masters said.

Masters said research shows the first five years of life are especially critical in human development, and the sooner problems can be caught, the greater the potential for recovery.

"That's a huge concern, that those children will not get identified, will not get the services they require," she said of the reduction in screening the funding cuts would cause.

Masters said if the cuts take effect, 70,000 families in Missouri will no longer receive Parents as Teachers services and at least 1,300 parent educators will lose their jobs.

"It's heartbreaking to lose staff, but it's ultimately about the families and the success of these children going forward," Masters said.

Blakey said she's unhappy about the prospect of losing her job and the families she serves.

"As families are learning about this, they are very upset, because, to be honest, we build a bond," she said. "... My extended family has gotten quite large."

If she loses her job, Blakey plans to retire and devote her time to taking care of her nearly year-old granddaughter while her son and daughter-in-law work.

She said she finds it hard to believe how anyone could fail to appreciate how valuable Parents as Teachers is to the community.

"We are bombarded, from doctors, from books, you name it, with how critical those beginning years are, and I truly believe that," Blakey said.

"You can't put a price on it," she added. "Well, I guess you can. I guess someone did."

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