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[M]ore neurological development occurs by the age of 4 than in the rest of a person’s life – and impoverished toddlers are at special risk of receiving limited brain stimulation. Children unable to read by third grade are unlikely to graduate high school, and will cost society dearly in increased social service costs.

That’s the argument Senator Jeff Smith (D-SD4) used to try to persuade the state Senate to accept his amendment to a bill Charlie Shields (R-SD34) was sponsoring that would require the state to rate the quality of pre-schools. Smith’s amendment offers free pre-school to three and four year olds if the family earns less than 130 percent of poverty and if the family lives in an unaccredited school district (there are three in the St. Louis area–SLPS, Wellston, Riverview Gardens–and one in Wyaconda in northeast Missouri). The proposal, which would cost the state about $5 million a year, aims to help 1250 children a year come to kindergarten prepared to read, so that they’ll be set on a path to success.

The debate lasted several hours, with the opposition arguing that the St. Louis Public Schools have failed at managing their budget and at achieving decent academic goals. Their dropout rate is abysmal, so some legislators feel the district should not be rewarded for its incompetence. Smith argued that we’ve unaccredited the district; now we need to give those children a helping hand.

He says that when the Senate prepared to vote:

I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked around the room and saw several allies in their seats. But then, even though the “Ayes” seemed louder than the “No’s”, the chair called the vote for the “No’s”. I quickly rose to request a roll-call vote, which Democrats (outnumbered 20-14) often dread, because senators often look to the bill sponsor [in this case, Shields] for guidance before voting on amendments, and because important roll-call votes usually fall along party lines. Sen. Shields had told me only that he “wouldn’t fight” the amendment – vague enough to leave open the option of voting against without speaking against it. This also did not necessarily preclude the frequently-employed but barely perceptible shake of the head (if another senator were to seek guidance).

But in the end, though my amendment significantly increased the cost of the bill and was thus opposed by the influential Appropriations Chair, Sen. Shields voted yes (along with every Democrat and 7 Republicans), and the amendment prevailed 21-7. I plan to work with Sen. Shields to help shepherd the bill through the House, though its prospects are uncertain.

The problem with getting it through the House is that a bill requiring a quality rating system for pre-schools failed there last year. If the House passes it this time, the funds for the pre-school program will be divided between public schools and non-sectarian community-based early childhood centers–for two reasons.

The first is that a previous bill offering free pre-school to poor children in Kansas City had the unintended consequence of driving some community-based pre-schools out of business. Furthermore, the St. Louis Public Schools do not even have the space and slots available to effectively use all of the money. And besides, diverting half of the money to private early child care centers helped appease some of those who feel that giving the SLPS such a reward is throwing good money after bad.

None of those who voted Aye will still be in the Senate when St. Louis and Wyaconda begin reaping the rewards of Smith’s vision fifteen years hence. Those 21 senators, nevertheless, voted for the long term. Perhaps the House, as well, will see the wisdom of leaving such a legacy.