Missouri Gov. Nixon's promises on preschool fall short

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Gov. Jay Nixon has repeatedly described high quality preschool programs as a great investment for the state while proposing millions in additional funding for early childhood efforts.

But Nixon has short-changed his own proposals by cutting funding approved by the Legislature for such programs, because he says the state doesn't have enough revenue to do what he would like.

"We don't have the money. There's a big difference between what's in a budget and what's in a bank account," Nixon said last week. "Early childhood is important, and as the economy gets moving forward we'd love nothing more than to get those dollars out there."

When the 2015 fiscal year began last July, Nixon held back about $21 million in increased funding for a home visit program for new parents, grants for new or expanding preschools, and increases in subsidies to help low-income working parents pay for child care. That funding remains on hold and is also not included in Nixon's proposed 2016 budget, which takes effect in July.

"It's frustrating," said Erin Brower, vice president of the Alliance for Childhood Education. "But if the money's not there, it's not there."

Early childhood education programs are "the best investment the state can make, and I don't think we're giving it the priority it needs," Brower added.

At issue are the Missouri Preschool Program, which provides seed money for public or private programs to grow; Parents as Teachers, a home visit program for new parents intended to help them prepare their children for school; and child care subsidies for working parents.

In January 2014, Nixon proposed an additional $20 million for the Missouri Preschool Program. The Legislature approved an increase of about $4 million, for a total of $15.7 million, in the 2015 budget. Nixon then withheld three-quarters of the new funding and cut that increase out of the 2016 budget proposal.

Nixon also asked for funds last year to increase the rate paid as a subsidy to help low-income workers pay for child care and increase eligibility for the program. The Legislature approved a $17.4 million increase, but Nixon also withheld the full amount last summer.

Similarly, Nixon asked for a $1 million increase for Parents as Teachers. The Legislature approved that increase, which would have funded the program at $16 million — still less than half its $34 million peak in 2009. Again, Nixon withheld that increase and did not include it in his 2016 budget proposal.

"It's disappointing that the actions don't match what is being said," said Jack Jensen, executive director of Columbia's First Chance for Children. "Everybody talks about the importance of early childhood education, including the governor, and yet budget after budget the first thing we see get cut when times are tough is early childhood programming."

Nixon said the restrictions were necessary because the budget passed by the Legislature was not balanced.

Advocates for earlier intervention with children cite research on brain development showing the first few years of life are the most important. They point to multiple studies that find children in quality preschool programs go on to better scholastic success and higher incomes and are less likely to commit crimes in adulthood, resulting in net savings for the government.

Some groups are pushing to find new funding sources for early childhood programs. Brower's group is working to put a cigarette tax hike on the ballot in 2016 to fund preschool programs.

In some communities, local school districts have stepped up to fund programs. Missy Riley, director of early childhood at Springfield Public School District, said the district has increased its funding for the Parents as Teachers program. Still, more could be done, she said.

"If we were what I consider fully funded, every family would receive at minimum monthly visits," Riley said. "We're nowhere near that."

For next year, Nixon has proposed increased funding for different early childhood program. He wants to redirect $11 million in federal funds through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to preschools and add $5 million for school districts to provide preschool for children with special needs in his 2016 budget.


Follow Marie French on Twitter at https://twitter.com/m\_jfrench

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