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Mississippi is one step closer to passing sweeping education reforms that could, for the first time, bring state-funded pre-K to the state. On Wednesday, the House and Senate passed legislation that would provide $3 million to partially fund voluntary preschool programs for 4-year-olds beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

Mississippi pre-K
Children at a child care center in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

Advocates of early education in the state have been surprised by the state’s introduction of and subsequent passage of pre-K legislation. Mississippi is the only state in the South, and one of 11 in the nation that does not currently fund pre-K. In December, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant released his budget proposal for the year, focusing heavily on education but leaving out funding for pre-k except for a promising private program. Bryant has previously stated that he believes parents are responsible for educating their young children.

While the pre-K bill sailed through the House, the Senate debated the early education legislation, questioning the pre-K bill’s author, Sen. Brice Wiggins, about the effects the legislation would have on church programs and current pre-K teachers. The bill would raise the qualifications of pre-K teachers and assistants, mandating that they have at least a bachelor’s degree and an associate’s degree, respectively.

During the debate, Wiggins, reminded lawmakers that Mississippi is behind most states in passing preschool legislation, and encouraged skeptics to consider the benefits of pre-K. “ We don’t want [kids] to just be babysat,” Wiggins said, referring to the fact that about 85 percent of children in the state currently attend some form of day care or preschool in the state. “The idea is that if they’re going to be there, that we educate them,” he added.

Passage of the bill could have important implications for children in Mississippi. The state has a large and mostly unregulated system of day care and pre-K programs, and there is no guarantee of quality.

Research has shown that the first five years in a child’s life are the most critical for learning. Often children who begin school unprepared and behind their peers, stay behind. In Mississippi, one out of every 14 kindergarteners and one out of every 15 first-graders were deemed unprepared for the next grade-level, according to the Southern Education Foundation, costing the state over $2 billion between 1998 and 2008 in remediation costs.

The pre-K bill would offer matching funds during the first phase of the program to approved programs that can raise half of their program costs. To receive funding, school districts or licensed child care centers and Head Start centers must meet a variety of requirements beyond those required to get licensed. Programs must adopt a research-based curriculum, serve at least one meal a day that meets national dietary requirements, and hire qualified teachers.

Some advocates worry that the bill will not actually serve the state’s neediest children. Unlike every other Southern state, except for Alabama, the bill does not prioritize giving seats to low-income children or those with limited English proficiency. And the process to get licensed can be challenging for day care centers in rural areas that may struggle to raise half the funds, or lack the capacity to handle the paperwork and demands of licensing.

“It’s going to benefit the communities that have the resources and leave behind the communities that don’t have the resources,” said Carol Burnett, founder and director of Mississippi’s Low-Income Child Care Initiative, to the Southern Education Desk.

The Senate is expected to vote today on a House-Senate agreement of a charter school bill, which passed the House on Tuesday. The bill allows charter schools to open in low-performing districts, and gives school boards in high performing districts veto power over the schools. Some have expressed concern that like pre-K, the bill will not actually reach the students who may need it most. Students would not be allowed to cross district lines to attend charter schools, which could make it hard for schools to attract the numbers and types of students required by the bill.

Legislators are also expected to vote today on other bills supported by Gov. Phil Bryant, including a teacher merit pay pilot program and a literacy bill would hold most third-graders back from advancing to the next grade if they are not on reading level.

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