Gov. Mike Parson is proposing a $3 million funding increase next fiscal year to provide early childhood development services to 1,529 Missouri families. The recommended FY2020 funding would help families with children from birth to three years old who are considered in “high need” of help. High need families could be those without a home or living in poverty, teen or single parents, academic, international or military families, incarcerated parents, households with substance misuse, children or parents with a medical condition, and the list goes on and on.

Missouri Capitol Rotunda (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requested $23 million for the Parents as Teachers program – a roughly $5.4 million increase over the current fiscal year. The overall proposed $21 million Parson is requesting would help with things like parenting education and screenings for potential disabilities, among other things.

Former Gov. Kit Bond, who started the Parents as Teachers organization during his tenure as governor, is ecstatic about Parson’s move.

“I’m excited and delighted to hear that after years of cutting back on Parents as Teachers to provide other functions, they’ve finally decided, and the governor has taken the lead in saying ‘We really need to get Parents as Teachers,’” Bond tells Missourinet.

The state has battled for years to find ways to increase early childhood development funding. For comparison, the state provided about $34 million to the program in 2010 and the funding has taken a significant dive since then. The current fiscal year’s budget for the program is $18 million.

Parson’s proposed increase addresses the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s wait list for high need families, as reported by the department during the spring of 2018. Some districts may not collect a wait list. Another 4,000 families continue to wait because they are not considered to be in critical need of help. Plenty of other Missouri families who could use the help are not on the list, according to Alison Gee with the Parents as Teachers organization.

“If you would look solely at the indicator of low-income, 1 in 4 children under 6 years old live in poverty. That’s about 106,000 children,” she says. “When you look at the other indicators, homelessness, single parenthood, teen parenthood, military families, mental health and substance use, incarcerated parents, the numbers just go up.”

Gee says issues in Missouri’s rural areas might be a little different, but the need is just as great.

“If you look at our rural communities, the poverty, the homelessness, frankly the opioid substance abuse issues, the lack of resources, they are in as much need as some of our inner-city communities,” she says. “More and more funders are really directing their limited resources to families that frankly can make the greatest progress with these parenting support services.”

Bond, a Republican, says his greatest accomplishment as governor was launching the Parents as Teachers organization.

“I was excited to hear all the parents who saw the tremendous difference it made for their families and their children,” he says.

Bond not only talked the talk, but he also walked the walk when it came to the Parents as Teachers model. His son, Sam, was born as Bond started his second term as governor. The former chief executive officer of Missouri had all the Parents as Teachers program materials and used them to educate himself with the concepts.

“I’m proud to say that with good luck and a smart kid, Sam turned out pretty well,” he says.

With the personal success he found by using the program, Bond took his next challenge to legislators. In 1984, the Missouri Legislature was controlled by Democrats. Around 11 p.m. on the final day of the regular legislative session, enough arm twisting and deals were made to get the General Assembly to pass funding that provided the parenting support services to all Missouri families with children birth to three years old. The bill passed with wide bipartisan support. Bond says getting to that point wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

“It’s the best investment we can make – investment in our children. It saves money for the education budget and for the government by helping to avoid costs that they have when children fall behind,” says Bond.

Parson, a Republican, has made infrastructure and workforce development his priorities. Gee says increased funding for early childhood development is right up Parson’s alley.

“We know that the earliest years are the most important time. It’s the most impactful. It’s a time when the brain is growing rapidly and when the foundations of cognitive functioning, executive functioning, social and emotional skills, of frankly the kinds of skills we need when we’re looking at having a ready workforce. The first five years are critical,” she says. “Governor Parson understands the need for workforce development and what we know he understands also is that the earliest years are vital to having a robust, ready workforce.”

One might also argue that the additional investment in early childhood development could impact things like graduation rates, the economy, social services benefits and the criminal justice system.

Parson’s budget outline is under consideration by the legislature.

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