There’s a swelling momentum to increase the number of children under the age of 5 receiving free early childhood education in the St. Louis region.
State funding for preschool remains minimal, but dollars are slowly growing and institutions are getting creative in ways to soak up more of those limited funds.
Several charter schools in the city are looking to partner with childhood centers to provide more pre-K spots to fill a void of 4,000 quality child care spots. And on Saturday, several community organizations will kick off an effort to raise funding for more pre-K opportunities in the county.
Very few Missouri children currently have access to state-funded pre-K: just 2% of 4-year-olds and only 1% of 3-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. But funding increased 8% from 2017 to 2018, the most recent years available.
“This system is woefully and inequitably funded. Parents and families are really having to carry that weight on their backs, and it’s creating a lot of pain in the system,” said Joey Saunders, director of policy for WEPOWER, a local community organizing group.
Child care is expensive, costing an average of $9,880 a year, according to Child Care Aware, an advocacy organization. That’s about $1,200 more than the average cost of in-state public university tuition in Missouri.
Advocates argue there are myriad benefits of having children in quality pre-K, such as improved reading ability and better social and emotional skills.
“As far as return on investment goes, it’s really one of the most research-based proven strategies to really close the achievement gap and have long-term effects on community well-being,” said Anne Miller, an education consultant behind the St. Louis Pre-K Cooperative.
St. Louis Public Schools is the largest provider of pre-K in the city, with just over 2,000 children ages 3-4 years old attending for free. The program began in 1995 and was doubled in 2014 using money from the desegregation lawsuit settlement. Yet as that money runs out, the district is shifting funding to a variety of places, including relying heavily on philanthropic giving.
There are 3,300 free pre-K spots in the city when combined with the 1,000 or so spots in federal Head Start centers, leaving about half the children in the city ages 3-5 years not in quality, free pre-K, according to recent reviews of services.
A cooperative effort
In 2018, a state law kicked in where the state pays the cost of 4% of the children enrolled in preschool who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the measure of poverty in schools. In St. Louis, that works out to about $2.3 million. The pot the first year was $48 million for the entire state.
“Even if we max all that out, there are still large gaps in the investment that it would take to really serve all St. Louis students,” Miller said.
The pre-K reimbursement law went into effect with little fanfare, so some school leaders only recently learned about the opportunity. For other small charter schools, the costs, space requirements and staffing expertise make the roughly $9,100 in per-pupil state funding they’d receive not enough to cover the startup costs.
But by bringing together charter schools and established day care centers, there’s optimism that there’s enough expertise and collaboration available to quickly get classrooms up and running.
Katie Rahn, the executive director of SouthSide Early Childhood Center, calls it a “mixed delivery model.”
The collaboration comes in as students enrolled in a charter could then attend an early childhood center for pre-K or the center could provide staffing to the school through a contract.
Confluence Academies, the largest charter school network in the city, already offers free preschool. KIPP, the second largest, does not. Both are involved in the cooperative. Confluence Chief Executive Officer Candice Carter-Oliver said her school’s role could be as a resource to answer logistical questions and share best practices.
Smaller schools have also expressed interest in the cooperative.
“It’s innovative, and we’re excited to be a part,” said St. Louis Language Immersion School Chief Executive Meghan Hill.
Miller helped start a similar cooperative in Kansas City. There, six charter schools were able to open 120 pre-K spots in August, with plans to add more next school year. In St. Louis, the cooperative is aiming to have about 200 more children in free preschool for this coming school year starting in August.
“It’s not an end-all-be-all strategy, but it’s a great opportunity, and it’s just one of many strategies that needs to be pursued to increase access,” Rahn said.
There’s also state reimbursement money for 1,800 pre-K spots across St. Louis County currently going unused, according to Miller.
Raising money in St. Louis County
WEPOWER and several other advocacy groups and service providers will kick off their Ready By 5 campaign to get the tax increase on the November ballot Saturday. They’ll host a letter-writing event at Jackson Park Elementary School in University City beginning at 9 a.m.
Child care, either for newborns to 2-year-olds, or pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, is scattershot. Both quality and quantity of care options varies across the county. Some school districts, such as Ferguson-Florissant, offer free, half-day pre-K. Most other districts offer pre-school on a tuition basis.
“There are many families who access early childhood education, but there are a lot of families who can’t really afford to. And so you see the disparities when we talk about being ‘kindergarten-ready,’” said Brittany Hogan, a WEPOWER fellow and equity and diversity coordinator for the Rockwood School District.
WEPOWER released a “playbook” in January for expanding pre-K in St. Louis County. It calls for a half-cent sales tax increase in St. Louis County that the group says would raise $84 million a year for early childhood education.
The $84 million would “transform the system in a way that it just isn’t currently able to do with zero,” Saunders said.
One possible use of the funds Saunders said is to provide subsidies for families who earn too much for Head Start but can’t afford the tuition to a center. Funds could also be used to increase pay for early childhood educators, who on average earned $28,570 a year in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Late last year, the state won a $33.5 million federal grant to try to improve access to early childhood education. Two years ago, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson talked up expanding preschool funding but then left it out of his legislative priorities.
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