The U.S. Chamber Foundation says one-third of Missouri families report that they or someone in their household left a job, did not take a job, or greatly changed jobs because of problems with childcare in the last 12 months. It says Missouri’s economy loses an estimated $1.35 billion annually due to childcare problems.

Pam Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the Missouri Office of Childhood, said her office is working to increase access to high-quality early childhood education programs.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education building (Photo courtesy of Alisa Nelson)

“We need to recognize there is a pipeline and that pipeline is very dry right now,” she said.

As of state budget year 2021, the state says about 34% of low-income Missouri children, birth to age five, have access to publicly-funded early childhood education programs. According to the state, little is known about the quality of these programs.

Thomas referenced a Missouri college that used to have four classes of college students seeking a degree in early childhood education. According to Thomas, that college only has four students today.

“This work is so much bigger than our office because the conversation about wanting to be an early childhood professional isn’t happening. It’s not happening,” said Thomas. “There are not students going into higher education – and even when we offer scholarships, and even when we offer the wrap-around support, they’re not taking the bait.”

She said entry-level early childcare jobs are not a livable wage, but other pathways in the field could be.

“I also don’t think it’s a valued profession,” said Thomas.

Missouri Board of Education Vice President Carol Hallquist, of Kansas City, said the state needs to find ways to expand the pipeline.

“We are at a crisis with early childhood staff and providers. The pay is awful. We think we’ve got it in K through 12, this is 10 times worse. I would just urge us to put a real focus on this,” said Hallquist. “This is the future of Missouri. This is the most important thing we can do to focus on early childhood education.”

The Missouri Office of Childhood says every dollar invested in early childhood education returns up to $7.30 to the state.

Board of Education President Charlie Shields, of St. Joseph, said solving the state’s childcare access problems would allow Missouri to grow.

“This will be ultimately the economic development tool of the future because it does two things – one, in the short term, it solves your problem because it allows people to reenter the workforce. And then in the long term, it creates your workforce for 15 years from now. I mean, I can’t picture where you would invest more money if you wanted to have a long term and an immediate impact on your economics of your state than this area. Somehow we have to keep preaching that message. I mean, this is way more important than any incentive package, any tax policy, whether it’s more important than right to work. This is the issue that will allow our state to grow and we have to get people on board,” he said.

Shields, who is the CEO of Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, said availability of affordable early childcare is part of the reason for the great resignation of his workforce.

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