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Early childhood education aids economic development, lacks funding

Early childhood education aids economic development, lacks funding

Presiding Boone County Commissioner Ken Pearson published comments on early childhood education in this venue in December. He stated: “Data show that every dollar spent on at-risk children saves $6 of subsequent spending on juvenile justice and later incarceration. Early childhood education can move at-risk children toward becoming productive contributors to society.” We wish to broaden this discussion to include how early childhood education prevents the achievement gap between racial and socioeconomic groups, strengthens the work force, lowers social intervention costs and increases property values. Some estimate a community’s return on investment is between $4 and $12 per $1 spent.
This topic is not new to Columbia. Passionate and motivated individuals have been pushing this agenda for years. Dr. Kathy Thornburg, deputy commissioner of education, has produced and disseminated significant research to many throughout the state and nation. Former director of First Chance for Children Phil Peters and current Director Jack Jensen have worked on the frontline of providing and coordinating services to children and families in need. In addition, agencies and programs such as Head Start, Central Missouri Community Action, Jumpstart and many others are providing daily services to improve the lives of families and children in Columbia.
As is the case with most reform, the big elephant in the room is sustainable funding. Current funding comes in various buckets. Columbia Public Schools has limited federal dollars that are provided with strings attached such as Title I. Title I funding allows the district to serve about 700 students, ages 3 to 4, in half-day preschool programs across the district. However, the projected need is 1,014 based on free and reduced-price lunch status for this age group. Other organizations depend on grant funding or fundraising. The overall result is a disjointed program subject to the highs and lows of funding cycles.
Could a quality, universal, county-funded pre-kindergarten program be developed that would coordinate early childhood education for all students? Such a program could provide subsidies for needy families, provide quality control and professional development for private and public providers, coordinate services with existing programs and ensure access for all students.
For nearly 20 years, Minnesota has provided funding for early childhood programs through a state-sanctioned tax levy. The levy operates similarly to school district levies in Missouri. The rate is set each year, with stipulations on the minimum amount that must be available for funding. In Minnesota, it’s $22 million and applies to all school districts. Funds are used to operate quality early childhood and family education programs, complete with home visits.

Chris Belcher
Chris Belcher. Belcher is superintendent of Columbia Public Schools.
Missouri has provided an alternate county-controlled tax levy option for senior citizen programs. Clay County, Mo., in the mid-1990s, passed a 5-cent property tax levy to support senior citizen services. Missouri is one of eight states that have senior citizen tax levy legislation, and about 50 counties have passed tax levy increases for specialized funding under this program. An appointed board manages the revenue, and various agencies and community groups access the funding through grants to provide nutritional programs, senior centers, medical services and other beneficial programs. This program is working well.
Is it time for Boone County to lead the way in Missouri and consider an early childhood levy? A 5-cent county property tax levy would produce approximately $1.2 million annually. Rough estimates would put the number of pre-kindergarten students living in poverty in Boone County at 2,700. A 5-cent levy would amount to a modest investment of approximately $440 per child per year. This would take legislative action in Jefferson City to give the county authority for such a levy.
Tom Rose
Tom Rose. Co-author Tom Rose is vice president of the Columbia Board of Education.
Why advocate for a county tax? First, Boone County has four public school districts. All districts have a K-12 mission. Secondly, schools would have conflicts in managing a program that has both public and private connections. Finally, the county has the jurisdiction and working relationships with cities and schools required for leadership. Such a venture would require the coordination and effective management of government. A strong lead is needed to improve access to services.
We could provide statistics from multiple studies to support this proposition, but the bottom line is an ethical obligation to children. County data from 2008 reveal an 18.2 percent poverty rate compared with the 13.4 percent Missouri average. In addition, more than 29 percent of children in Boone County live with families that receive food stamps. These children need to have access to early childhood education that will prepare them for kindergarten and academic success. Failure to do so has dire implications for public policy from health care to law enforcement to developing an educated workforce to maintain and attract businesses to Columbia. Quality early childhood education has an incredible return on investment and leads to a strong, vibrant community. In short, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The citizens of Boone County should be able to have a voice in this debate.

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