Missourians scored some big wins for child care and pre-K programs in the 2023 legislative session, although some said it is just a start.
Brian Schmidt, executive director of the group Kids Win Missouri, called it a “really exciting time” for child care and early childhood education in the state. He attributes a lot of the legislative gains, including a combined $160 million for childcare subsidies and pre-K programs, to the childcare crisis exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. “Seventy-three counties in Missouri are considered child care deserts,” Schmidt pointed out. “I think it’s really just an impact of the pandemic, where a lot of the childcare facilities are just struggling to find and recruit a workforce.”
Schmidt added Gov. Mike Parson identified expanding early-childhood programs as a priority. Ideally, he said, the $78.5 million to increase childcare subsidies will be an incentive for more childcare centers to take part in the subsidy program, increasing the options for low-income Missouri families. And regarding the additional $82 million for pre-K programs, Schmidt noted it “far exceeds” any previous legislative proposals for pre-K.
He added the pre-K funding was designed to provide families with options. “Fifty-six million is for school districts, and then the other $26 million is for childcare facilities,” Schmidt outlined. “Families could potentially have some options to choose the setting that best fits their needs.”
Robin Phillips, CEO of the nonprofit Child Care Aware of Missouri, lauded the funding but has concerns about what will happen when American Rescue Plan Act funds expire in a little more than a year.
She argued the child care system is a “broken business model,” with no funding formula behind community-based child care. In addition to higher operating costs for food, gas, utilities, and rent, Phillips pointed to providers’ struggle to maintain a workforce. “You have to have so many teachers for the number of children depending on the age range; you must have, for licensing,” Phillips emphasized. “And yet, when you pay all those expenses, you’re left with very little to pay teachers at about $12 an hour. That’s not a livable wage.”
Calling the child care system “very complex and layered,” Phillips added a bridge needs to be built to keep the progress going. “There are great and significant investments happening, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Phillips acknowledged. “Because two years, three years of federal relief money doesn’t fix 40 years of fragmentation.”