JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP)- When written in the late 1990s, the guidelines for the new Missouri Preschool Project declared on their first page that grant applications would be funded for three years.
The phrase “three-year period” was even highlighted with bold print, drawing special attention to the fact that the grants were intended as a short-term infusion for public school districts to start, expand or improve their preschools.
Now in its 13th year, the Missouri Preschool Project is still providing money to 54 school districts that were part of that inaugural class of grant recipients, as well as to more than 100 other preschools that remain in the program despite surpassing the three-year grant period.
But that is about to change.
The fiscal year 2013 budget recently passed by lawmakers pares back the amount of money available for the preschool grants and instructs state education officials to finally write formal rules for the program. The intent is to phase out the grants for the long-term recipients and eventually open the program to new participants whose grants truly would be capped at three years.
The story of the Missouri Preschool Project has been cited in the halls of the Capitol particularly by senators as an example of government gone awry. For some lawmakers, it’s an illustration of how government programs tend to gradually become permanent, conditioning the beneficiaries of the ongoing cash to become dependent upon it.
After a decade of grants, “a lot of schools just assumed that they were going to continue to get it,” said Sandy Seipel, the elementary principal for the Albany School District in rural northwest Missouri. “So it was quite a bombshell when that was dropped.”
The Albany preschool program has received more than $875,000 since the grant program began in the 1999-2000 school year, according to records from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that detail every dollar distributed in the program’s history. The school district now has two preschool classes with a total of 35 children, two teachers and two aides. The grants go primarily to salaries, Seipel said.
Statewide, 165 preschool programs received a total of more than $11 million in grants this school year, according to department figures.
Missouri’s new budget, which is awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature or veto, would reduce funding for the grant program to $8.3 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1 and transfer oversight from the education agency to the Office of Administration. It also would prorate the payments so that no existing grant recipients could get more than 75 percent of the total they got this year a step toward phasing out their grants altogether.
The reduction will force school districts to either supplement the preschool programs with money from other sources or make cuts in their supplies, equipment or the number of staff they employ and children they serve.
Seipel said Albany school officials are “going to do everything we can to keep that (preschool program) in place.”
But program cuts remain an option in many school districts.
In Bolivar, for example, administrators are trying to decide whether they can continue to employ four full-time teachers and enroll 80 children in their preschool.
“What it means to us is we may have to cut a classroom. We’re trying to come up with a plan,” said Lori Sechler, the district’s director of early childhood special services.
The Bolivar school district has received more than $988,000 from grants since the first year of the Missouri Preschool Project. District administrators weren’t initially expecting the money to last as long as it has.
But “after three and four years, when it continued, then you totally began to rely on that,” Sechler said.
Like Sechler, some of the long-time recipients of the preschool grants say they understand why the state now wants to phase them out. They just wish the end didn’t have to come after the state also has cut funding for other educational services, such as school bus subsidies and the Parents as Teachers early childhood development program.
In hindsight, state education officials say it’s not clear why the original preschool grants continued to be renewed long after their intended expiration. Eventually, the state’s guidelines for the grant applications dropped the reference to a three-year funding period.
“Rules should have been put in place, which they never were,” said deputy education commissioner Ron Lankford, who joined the state education agency in 2010 after serving as the superintendent for Webb City schools. He added: “It was a different administration, a different time back then.”
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