In its 25th year, successful kids program faces budget cuts
By Maria Altman, KWMU
St. Louis – It's the 25th year of Parents As Teachers, an early childhood program that began in Missouri.
It was the first of its kind when it began, and now Parents As Teachers is in every state and several countries.
Yet while the program is celebrating its anniversary, it's also facing a 10% cut in state funding from its home state.
Currently Parents As Teachers reaches 150,000 families of all backgrounds and economic levels. That's nearly half of all Missourians with children under five.
Jonne Sommerville and her 13-month-old son Tyler participate in the program. She recently met with parent educator Peggy Faul.
The three sat on the living room floor, and Peggy brought out simple toys for Tyler. As she encouraged the little boy to dump wooden clothespins in a bottle, she talked to Jonne about what developmental changes to expect.
"This toddler age, we talked a little bit last time, is a big age for dumping in and dumping out," Peggy explained.
Jonne says a friend referred her to Parents As Teachers. She says as a new mom it's been helpful.
"I've learned a lot from Miss Peggy," Jonne said. "She's told me what to look for especially when I returned to work. Some of the things he should be doing, when he started crawling, when he starts walking and talking and the things he should be eating."
Parents As Teachers officials say with a 10% cut from the state, visits like this will happen less frequently and for fewer families.
Executive Director Sue Stepleton calls the situation "hurtful," especially coming during the organization's 25th year.
She says it's difficult to understand why lawmakers would choose to cut a program that helps students do better when they reach school.
Stepleton points to a recent study that found students from low-income families involved in Parents As Teachers did as well on school preparedness and achievement tests as kids from higher-income families that did not participate.
"There is so much information at a variety of different levels about how important investment in young children is," she said, "I think it would have been a really courageous step for the Legislature to have said it's a tough time, there are things we'll have to cut back on, but our long-term future depends on young children."
Missouri House Budget Chairman Allen Icet says the program was not singled out.
The Republican from Wildwood says he doesn't like cutting programs, but he'd rather make smaller cuts now than have to gut programs later.
While some Missouri Democrats and Parents As Teachers officials say federal stimulus dollars could fill the gap, Icet says that's short-term thinking.
"The risk you run is if the situation doesn't turn around by the time you run out of that one-time money, now you face a major shortfall," he said. "I'm trying to make small cuts year by year, and though they may be painful to individual programs, my hope is that we avoid a major cut somewhere down the road."
Icet says school districts and others who believe the program is critical could help fund it.
"I don't think it's asking the school districts or others too much to actually participate in funding the program," he said.
Parents as Teachers officials say some districts already do contribute funding, and that's not a likely option for lower-income districts.
Instead, Stepleton says they're counseling individual school districts to go after federal stimulus money without the help of the state.