JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers are moving to put more of the state's money where their mouths are in supporting preschool and early childhood programs.
Legislation advancing at the state Capitol would allow public schools to begin counting some children attending early childhood education programs toward the basic state funding they receive. Supporters say preschool can prevent children from falling behind early and reduce later costs for things such as remedial learning and social services.
"A child arriving in kindergarten ready to learn is one of the best predictors of success in school," said Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau. "High-quality pre-K education not only ensures success in kindergarten but (also) attracts new businesses and young families to our state and prepares our future workforce."
The House passed the legislation 126-21 this past week, and it now goes to the state Senate where lawmakers have debated their own measure.
Under the House legislation, schools could count in their average daily attendance those enrolled in early childhood education programs and eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. It would be capped at 4 percent of the total number of students in the district who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.
The unaccredited Kansas City, Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts could start counting students for their state aid during the next academic year, and provisionally accredited schools could begin in 2015-16. Accredited districts would have the option after Missouri's school formula is fully funded. The formula would need a $556 million increase next year for full funding.
One opponent voiced concerns about directing more state funds to unaccredited schools and limiting that to students from lower-income families.
"I don't get stopped on the highway, and I'm not told that I can't drive on the highway or use the public library because I don't qualify for free and reduced (price) lunch," said Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.
Several states have sought to bolster funding this year for preschool and early childhood programs after state funding to help families pay for preschool fell a couple of years ago. Funding now is $400 million higher than before the recession, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said about 350 school districts report having prekindergarten teachers. Including Early Childhood Special Education increases the figure to roughly 400 districts.
The Missouri School Boards' Association said there is a "patchwork" of programs for early childhood education where some districts are making significant investments and others do not have the resources for that. Adding preschool to Missouri's school funding is supported by business and education groups.
Erin Brower, vice president of the Alliance for Childhood Education, said there are immediate and longer-term benefits. The alliance is a coalition of business leaders focused on education in Missouri and Kansas.
"This will definitely increase the access, where more schools will be able to offer it and then more kids will get to go," she said.
Allowing unaccredited districts to get state funding for preschool could cost more than $3 million, according to a cost estimate approved by legislative staff. Opening the option to all districts could increase the cost to more than $72 million.
Missouri already has a program that provides grants to some preschools. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a $20 million increase for that program next year, which would nearly triple it. The House earlier endorsed an $8.2 million increase, and a Senate committee has proposed a $3.1 million increase for the preschool program.