KCUR: Who Is Missing From The Kansas City Chamber’s Big 5 Pre-K Push?

By Sam Zeff
October 9, 2014

Everyone, it seems, wants more children to attend pre-kindergarten.

Just last week President Barack Obama called for 6 million more high quality early childhood education slots by the end of the decade.

But the United States now has fewer children in state-funded pre-K programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. About 28 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled across the country. Overall there were 4,301 fewer children in pre-K classes in 2013 when compared to the previous year.

Not a huge number but, says NIEER, it’s the first time total enrollment has decreased since the organization began its tracking.

Kansas and Missouri fair poorly in how much they spend on state-funded early childhood education.

Kansas spends $2,163 per student and ranks 38th in the U.S., according to the NIEER survey.

Missouri is worse. It spends $2,067 and ranks 39th.

And there’s only 41 states that actually have state-funded pre-K programs.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has stepped into the middle of this and made high quality preschool one of its Big 5 Initiatives.

“Our goal is make 100 percent of children in Greater Kansas City kindergarten ready on the first day of class,” says Chamber President Roshan Parris.

When the Chamber made the announcement it was done up big — a big room at Union Station, huge crowd, lots of movers-and-shakers in the education and business communities.

But one important group was missing. Not one state legislator from Kansas or Missouri was at the event. In fact, the chamber says, state lawmakers weren’t even part of the discussions as the chamber moved towards making pre-K part of the Big 5.

Without buy-in from state lawmakers it will be almost impossible for the chamber to reach its goal, says Shannon Cotsoradis, President of Kansas Action for Children.

“The key to sustainability will be public investment,” she says. “So as business leaders look to increase the private investment in Kansas City they’ll also have to be looking leverage their influence to increase public investment in young children.”

Not that finding more money for pre-k education will be easy, Cotsoradis says.

Both Kansas and Missouri currently aren’t fully funding public schools.

But Tracy McFerrin-Foster, a vice president with the Hall Family Foundation, who is helping lead the effort for the chamber, says it’s simply too early to lobby lawmakers in Topeka and Jefferson City.

“I think that is a question that remains to be seen and, again, it’s going to be informed by process of bringing the stake holders together to determine if there is any kind of specific lobbying, what that will look like. But it’s too soon to say right now,” she says.

It’s hard to find research that says high quality, early childhood education isn’t crucial to academic success.

Some research shows kindergarten ready students graduate at higher rates and are less likely to go to jail.

One University of Chicago study even put a number on it: Every dollar spent on pre-school returns $7 over a lifetime.

Patti White runs the Head Start program in the Independence School District.

She says Independence has focused on early childhood education for decades. It signed on to Head Start soon after the federal program was established in 1968.

The district also has a preschool option for parents who can pay.

Right now, White says, about a third of all kindergartners in the district started out in a district run pre-school.

Kindergarten teachers say students who have gone to pre-K are better socialized, better behaved and ready to learn.

“I believe that we are, at this level, beginning to develop them as members of society, as people ready to contribute,” White says.

McFerrin-Foster says the Chamber knows all of this and understands that a child better prepared to learn is better educated in the long run. And that’s good for the businesses the Chamber represents.

But, she says, the initiative is at the very beginning of the process. More people have to be recruited into the initiative, data must still be collected and analyzed and then a plan laid out.

All that could take a year, according to McFerrin-Foster.

Giving a little more time for the economy to heal some more and, perhaps, loosen the purse strings on education spending in both Topeka and Jefferson City.

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