Missouri Preschool Project Funding in Jeopardy

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COLUMBIA - The Missouri Preschool Project, which used to create new preschool classrooms, is facing millions in budget cuts as well as granting authority issues.

Missouri Preschool Program, or MPP, provides seed money to help preschools expand to full-day classes. In FY 2012, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, also known as DESE, funded $11 million to 154 public school districts and 11 private licensed providers with the MPP fund. The program served more than 4,000 preschool-age children around the state.

For the FY 2013, $3 million was projected to fund 20 new MPP programs but lawmakers cut the money during the legislative session.

The University City Children's Center in St. Louis is one of the 11 private providers of MPP classes. Executive Director Stephen Zwolak said, "They just didn't just cut money. They cut future."

The money concerns don't stop there. The remaining $8.3 million dollars appointed to the existing MPP classes seems to be tied up in red tape. Lawmakers took the MPP funding from DESE during the legislative session and gave it to the Office of Administration. DESE Communications Coordinator Sarah Potter said the problem is the Office of Administration does not have the granting authorities by law.

"They can't give it out to anyone," Potter said. "We are the ones who would be able to give it out to them. So at this point we are just waiting for the Office of Administration."

The Office of Administration Budget Director Linda Luebbering said the money will be eventually given back to DESE, and her office will make sure DESE implements the program correctly. However, Potter said DESE has not heard from the Office of Administration so far.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher said this has become a political issue.

"Unfortunately Early Childhood got thrown into a political debate," Belcher said. "Probably no one knows what's gonna come out. It puts a lot of very good programs at risk because of the uncertainty whether they are gonna get money or not. For those families that depending on the services to not know whether it's going to be there next year or not. It's terrible."

Zwolak said he is not sure if his center will be able to get the funds in the upcoming fiscal year, but he is working on a plan to tighten expenses for the class.

Currently, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranks Missouri 35th nationwide for its early childhood education resources.