Parents as Teachers hit by budget cuts

Sunday, January 9, 2011

It's considered one of the most successful early child development programs around, touching the lives of tens of thousands of Missouri families over its quarter-century run.

But the Parents as Teachers Program has been hit hard by deep budget cuts, and the future could be even bleaker for a family education initiative praised on both sides of the legislative aisle.

"It makes me very sad that it's not the program that it was at one time," said Deena Ring, director of special services with the Cape Girardeau School District.

Ring has a personal connection to the program. She was a Parents as Teachers parent, and her children were enrolled.

"It's a good program, and I think they were better prepared for school," she said. "It's sad to think that, not just as educator but as a parent who had children go through it, that opportunity is not there like it was."

Parents as Teachers provides developmental health screenings for infants and preschoolers and brings child-rearing instruction to their families. A 1984 Missouri law required all school districts in the state to offer the Parents as Teachers program. It has since spread to all 50 states and several foreign countries.

In Missouri, the program lost 60 percent of its funding last year, the victim of desperate economic times and precipitous state budget cuts. As a result, the program has served far fewer families. Parents as Teachers advocates believe the state's schools will eventually pay the price through higher remedial education costs and students falling farther behind in rising standards-based education.

By the numbers

The Cape Girardeau School District's Parents as Teachers program budget this school year, at $76,558, lost about half of its total funding, down from around $149,000 in 2009-2010, Ring said. The program was forced to cut one parent educator position, so two educators now serve 220 children in the district. Enrollment is down by nearly half as well, from 450 children the year before. A few years ago, the four educators served the growing program, Ring said.

Such was the case for the thriving Missouri Parents as Teachers initiative three years ago, supported with $33 million of taxpayer funding. In days of big budget shortfalls, the program now receives $13 million in state funding.

In a webinar last week on the future of Parents as Teachers in Missouri, education commissioner Chris Nicastro said she hoped the legislature would at least hold the line on funding in the 2012 budget.

"My budget request is $13 million," she said. "I wish it could have been twice that amount."

With a state budget deficit estimated as high as $700 million, not much is untouchable in the pursuit of balancing the books.

House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, said everything -- including schools -- needs to be on the table for possible cuts. Tilley told The Associated Press that Missourians are expecting state officials to live with the revenue they already have.

"You're beyond cutting fat," he said. "I think you're getting to the point where you're going to start to cut some bone."

With declining resources, Parents as Teachers has trained its focus on high-needs families, with a mandate that the lion's share of state funding target those in greatest need.

Beth Emmendorfer, associate superintendent for the Jackson School District, said fewer families are being served through Jackson's program, but parent educators are in the homes of high needs families on a more frequent basis.

Budget cuts halved the program's state funding from $106,000 last school year to $52,700 this year, Emmendorfer said. Families enrolled dropped from 596 in 2009-2010 to 240 this school year, with 158 of those families identified as high needs, she said. The district was forced to trim its parent educator staff from 5.5 positions to 3 positions.

The Jackson School District, like Cape Girardeau's public schools, has expanded its preschool programs in recent years, offering more potential for early childhood development. But Parents as Teachers, advocates say, provides the tools necessary to prepare children for pre-kindergarten and beyond.

"We know early education is important, and everyone is concerned there are going to be deeper cuts into Parents as Teachers," Emmendorfer said. "But we also understand the legislators have to be able to fund the program."

"We just hope it will continue to be funded at the current funding levels because it has already taken such a hit. I just hope it will be spared this round."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

301 N. Clark Ave. Cape Girardeau, MO

614 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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