Education commissioner dubs early child education legislation vital

By Emily Donaldson

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s top education official called a preschool bill one of the most significant pieces of legislation she has ever seen during a Senate Education Committee hearing last week.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, gives state aid to prekindergarten programs in Missouri schools. This would allow children ages 3 to 5 to have access to public education before kindergarten.

“We believe that this may be the most important legislation before this body this year, or any other year,” said Chris Nicastro, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The legislation is split into two bills, each with the same wording, but one applies to children receiving free and reduced lunch and the other applies to all children. While Keaveny said he hopes that the law would eventually apply to all children, he believes his bill will have a better chance when divided by socioeconomic status.

Keaveny said the bill would benefit not only the education of students and lower drop out rates, but also the state of Missouri’s business.

The return on our investment is pretty much between $7 and $12,” Keaveny said.

Erin Brower, director of advocacy and public policy for Partnership for Children, said that having higher quality preschools will attract better businesses into the state.

Brower also said that earlier education would mean more educated students and Missouri residents in the long run.

“We will be building our future work force in Missouri,” Brower said.

A representative for one of the state’s largest business associations also testified in support of the bill at the hearing.

Brian Crouse, vice president of education programs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said that by passing this bill, Missouri would be investing in the most important resource in the state: human capital.

Committee Chairman Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, emphasized that even though Missouri may not see an immediate return on this investment, there would be results within 10 to 15 years.

The committee also passed two bills that now head to the Senate floor.

One bill would create a council to oversee Missouri gifted education and the other would allow incompetent teachers in the St. Louis School District to be fired despite tenured status.