By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
State education officials hope to eventually expand access to early childhood education programs in Missouri, according to the president of the State Board of Education.
“It simply does make a difference,” Peter Herschend, president of the state board, said of early childhood education. “The difference in a child arriving in school, prepared to be in school, with good pre-kindergarten training is oftentimes the difference between success and failure of that child in his or her academic life.”
Herschend spoke Tuesday with representatives of the local education and business communities about the state board’s current legislative priorities at a public forum at the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
He said the board supports a bill filed in the Senate that would make state funds available to school districts that choose to establish voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.
Those funds would be available only after the state’s foundation formula, which allocates money to public schools, is fully funded, Herschend said. The formula is about $500 million short of being fully funded, he said.
Under the proposal, early childhood programs would be voluntary both for school districts, which could choose to accept or reject state funds for such a program, and for parents, who could decide whether their child would attend, Herschend said.
Superintendent C.J. Huff said officials with Joplin schools have previously expressed interest in expanding the district’s early childhood program. It currently is funded federally and serves about 200 students part time, he said.
“The needs are out there,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to give those kids a head start.”
Herschend said the primary obstacle to the bill’s passage would be finding enough money in the state’s budget to first fully fund the foundation formula and, subsequently, early childhood programs. He also said the bill could face opposition from political factions that think early childhood education should take place primarily in the home and not inside schools.
Herschend said the state board’s other legislative priority is a bill that would allow the board to immediately offer assistance to districts that have been designated as unaccredited.
Under the current law, the state board must wait two full academic years after the designation before stepping in, he said. The board’s options at that point are limited to taking over the district, breaking it into subdistricts or parceling it out among other districts, he said.
Under the proposal in front of legislators, the state board would be allowed to intervene at its discretion immediately upon a district becoming unaccredited and could offer a variety of resources, such as coaching or training, Herschend said.
“It is not the ambition of the state board to unaccredit districts,” he said. “It is the students who are really losers in that. That’s the concern.”
About five of the 520 Missouri school districts currently are listed as unaccredited, Herschend said.
A similar bill was introduced to legislators last year. It passed unanimously through the state House of Representatives but was later tied up indefinitely because of politics, he said.
TUESDAY’S PUBLIC FORUM with Peter Herschend, president of the Missouri State Board of Education, was the seventh to be staged in the state and the first one to be put on in Joplin.