How conservative Missouri stepped into the lead

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A statewide support program for early childrearing is the kind of legislation you might expect to see in a liberal state like Massachusetts, not politically and fiscally conservative Missouri.

“It is very difficult to convince state or even federal government to put money on the prevention end, especially in a conservative climate,” observes Shelly Peck, public education and advocacy coordinator for the Family Resource Coalition. “What Missouri has done is very difficult, especially in times of budget cuts and people not wanting to pay higher taxes.”

While the setting for the country’s first and most extensive Parents as Teachers program is unusual, the politics of its passage were not. Backers plugged away for years to build a coalition, and finished with a flourish of crafty legislative maneuvering. The only twist was that they had the enthusiastic support of a first-time father who just happened to be governor.

The idea of targeting parents of children from birth through 3-years-old emerged in the early 1970s when the state education department convened a series of interagency conferences to discuss ways to get parents involved in their children’s education early enough to affect performance in school. Gov. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican who is now a U.S. senator, backed the approach. However, bills introduced in the late 1970s couldn’t get through the Democrat-controlled legislature.

In 1981, Bond worked with educators, community leaders and child-development experts to launch a Parents as Teachers pilot to work with 380 families in four diverse school districts.

“The pilot grew out of concern that the programs we were implementing in the schools for developmentally and environmentally disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds still were offering a less-than-ideal prognosis for school,” relates former program director Mildred Winters, who now runs the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis. “We found that for many children, age 3 was already too late. So much of consequence had happened—or failed to happen—in the first years of life.”

A study of the pilot program found that 3-year-olds who participated were way ahead of a comparison group in language, intellectual and social skills, and that their parents were more knowledgeable about childrearing.

Bond, who had participated in the pilot as a first-time father, began pushing to take the program statewide. He rallied support from the education, health and social services sectors— which often had fought over state dollars. What followed, though, were three years of fruitless lobbying. Opposition came not only from legislators but also from conservative groups that feared government intrusion in the lives of families.

Finally, in 1984, backers managed to attach a Parents as Teachers bill to lawmakers’ pay raises.

“We really had to twist some arms,” Bond recalled in an interview last year with the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

As introduced, the program was to be voluntary. In the final hours of the legislative session, however, a rural legislator amended the bill to require that all school districts offer parent training. He insisted that if the legislation was good for Missouri, then he wanted it for his constituents; and without a mandate, he feared that the program would bypass his part of the state.

Recalls Winters: “We thought that would be the death knell, but instead it passed.”

“It was very unusual for this to be enacted in a conservative state,” she notes. “But it represents coalition-building at its best. We were able to build bipartisan support for it, and the governor was very successful in getting other state agencies to look on it not as an education bill but as something good for children and families.

“It took a lot of work on a lot of people’s parts,” she adds, “but it can happen in any state.”

Bond, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, continued to champion the program and began efforts to take the Missouri model nationwide. He introduced legislation in Congress three times before a separate authorization was approved under last year’s Education Goals 2000 package, which is now under attack by members of his own party.

For more information

Parents as Teachers National Center, 10176 Corporate Square Dr. Ste. 230, St. Louis, MO 63132. (314) 432-4330

Family Resource Coalition, 200 S. Michigan, 16th Floor, Chicago, IL 60604. (312) 341-0900.

The Beethoven Project, Center for Successful Child Development, 188 W. Randolph, Suite 2204, Chicago, IL 60601 (312) 373-8670.

HIPPY ChildServ, 1580 N. Northwest, Ste. 111, Park Ridge, IL 60688. (312) 694-2727 or (708) 298-1500

Family Focus, Inc., 310 S. Peoria, Ste. 401, Chicago, IL 60607. (312) 421-5200