By the Capital-Journal Editorial Board
July 16, 2016

Parents as Teachers is an early childhood development and education program that encourages parents to be more actively involved with their children from birth to age 3.

The program was conceived in the 1970s when teachers in Missouri noticed that some incoming kindergartners were more prepared for school than others. They wanted to figure out a way to ensure readiness for a greater number of students, and they realized that this could only be accomplished with increased parental involvement.

A large body of research on early childhood education has demonstrated that parental engagement is critical for healthy development. As an article from the Harvard Family Research Project explains, “Substantial research supports family involvement, and a growing body of intervention evaluations demonstrates that family involvement can be strengthened with positive results for young children and their school readiness.”

Parents as Teachers was launched in 1981, and the Missouri Legislature decided to fund it in all state school districts four years later. The program is now active in every U.S. state and six other countries.

Like Missouri, Kansas has traditionally funded Parents as Teachers with state resources (the money has been coming out of the Children’s Initiatives Fund, which is continually replenished with cash from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement). However, starting this month, state dollars will no longer be allocated to Parents as Teachers. Instead, the funding will be provided at the federal level via Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

While the same amount of money will be available, families who want to participate in Parents as Teachers now have to prove that they meet one of 19 stringent criteria. Here are a few examples: if a parent or child has chronic health conditions or disabilities; if a family is homeless or has unstable housing; or if a parent is under the age of 20.

Because the level of funding hasn’t decreased, the same number of families could still be served by Parents as Teachers. However, there are risks to consider.

What if many of the families who currently benefit from the program become ineligible and other families don’t sign up to take their place? The state needs to ensure potential beneficiaries are aware of their eligibility for Parents as Teachers — it will be a shame if participation in such a valuable program drops for no reason. As Topeka Unified School District 501 spokeswoman Misty Kruger notes, there might be “families that we could be serving or would benefit from the services but will not apply or will not qualify.”

Even though there were 62,000 Kansas families with incoming newborns or children young enough to qualify in fiscal year 2015, only 9,000 of them took advantage of Parents as Teachers. Given the ample evidence of the program’s effectiveness, this number is too low. We hope the new funding scheme doesn’t make it even lower.

Read more from the Topeka Capital-Journal.