Missouri’s prekindergarten and childcare systems are getting a $160 million boost in the new state budget year that is in full swing. The funding is one of Missouri’s largest state investments in early childhood education in Missouri history.

The state legislature’s budget decision comes after the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the state’s economy missed out on $1.3 billion in 2021 due to a lack of access to childcare. At least half of Missouri lacks access to quality childcare.

The legislature passed and Gov. Mike Parson signed a state budget with $82 million dollars for community-based childcare providers and public schools to increase the number of pre-k slots.

Torree Pederson, is the president and CEO of a Missouri education nonprofit, called Aligned. She said the budget item will boost pre-k slots by several thousand children. Pederson said the return on investment of getting the state’s youngest citizens ready for kindergarten is exponential.

“We’ve known for years that 90% of the child’s brain growth develops in the first five years,” said Pederson. “So, putting this kind of investment in the first five years of a child’s life is really the most responsible use of our taxpayer dollars.”

She said the new funding “just scratches the surface” and a number of Missouri kids will still not have access to quality care and pre-K education.

“Missouri, 10 years ago, candidly was at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to access to childcare. We have moved the needle significantly in the last 10 years, sort of that constant beating drum in the statehouse,” she said. “We spend less than 10% of our state budget – across the country, not just in Missouri – on this first five years where 90% of a child’s brain develops. I think we need to rethink the investment of our dollars in a space that contributes so much to not only the children who are getting that brain development and getting that quality learning, but also their parents who want to go to work today.”

She said the work continues to help give pre-kindergarten teachers a living wage.

The $160 million designated to help address prekindergarten and childcare needs is a significant difference from the $800 million Gov. Mike Parson requested.

Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, who helped to lead this effort at the legislative level, said lawmakers still accomplished a lot of good things this session for children.

“We are going to be able to provide universal pre-k for children their year before they go to kindergarten for all those children that are 185% of the federal poverty level. We put $82 million into the budget to be able to provide that,” said Shields.

She is also pleased with the $78 million designated to boost childcare providers rates.

“This will allow a lot of parents to be able to go back to work and to be able to find childcare at a much more affordable rate,” said Shields. “We need to make sure that we pay our childcare workers what they deserve. They are watching our most precious commodity in our state. They are helping them grow. It’s not just babysitting. They are determining, really, that child’s future because 90% of the brain develops before the age of five – and you can’t make that up. That’s why children need to be stimulated- they need to have adults talk with them, interact with them, react to them.”

She said investing in early childhood education helps to reduce the rate at which criminals reoffend. Shields said providing pre-k to additional children will help them with social emotional learning and children will become more productive when they are adults.

Shields plans to sponsor a bill next year that aims to further expand Missouri’s early childhood education system. It could be similar to the one she sponsored this year that would provide tax credits to childcare providers, donors to daycare centers, and businesses who help to cover the childcare costs of their employees.

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