Four-year-olds clutching jumbo pencils and carrying writing tablets aren’t roaming Mississippi’s statehouse in power suits, yet their interests are gaining an audience with the Legislature all the same. Several Senate leaders are backing a proposal to provide pre-K to a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds by 2022.

Related: OPINION: Five lessons on how states can invest in high-quality child care and early education

The move would more than triple the number of students who currently have access to Mississippi’s highly-quality program each year. About 8 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds have seats in the program this year. Mississippi provides half of the costs for school districts, Head Start programs and private child care centers that partner to serve their communities through the state’s pre-K program. Under the new proposal, the state would pay an additional $350 per child to raise the per pupil rate for full-day pre-K classrooms from $4,300 to $5,000. The state’s match for half-day programs would increase by $155 to bring the total amount spent per child from $2,150 to $2,500.

The push to ramp up pre-K spending and access in deep-red Mississippi is a big step. Until recently, the Republican-controlled Legislature preferred to grow the program slowly. A change in leadership — Mississippi’s newly elected Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann campaigned on prioritizing pre-K — national praise from an early research group, persistent lobbying from early education advocates and impressive outcomes for kids who have participated in the program may have changed their minds.

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About 8 percent of Mississippi’s 4-year-olds have seats in the state’s public pre-K program this year.

Almost half of Mississippi’s 3- and 4-year-olds don’t attend any preschool at all. The slow rollout of Mississippi’s pre-K program has frustrated some advocates who worry too many children are starting school behind and struggling to catch up. For the last three years, just over a third of the state’s kindergarteners have entered school prepared to learn, according to a test they take at the beginning of the year. A 2017 report from the Department of Education showed that children who attended a public or private pre-K program were more likely to meet the state’s kindergarten readiness target.

Related: Fighting for Mississippi’s struggling 5-year-olds, one student at a time

State Sen. Brice Wiggins has seen the results win over skeptics. “My colleagues have touted the program’s success and want their communities to have it,” Wiggins said.

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Mississippian’s pre-K support cuts across political backgrounds, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi. More than 83 percent of respondents indicated they supported public pre-K.

One reason Mississippi pre-K has been so successful is that quality is baked in: If individual programs don’t meet all or nearly all of the quality standards for National Institute for Early Education Research, they aren’t eligible to receive state funds.

Mississippi is one of several states that may be ready to prioritize pre-K in 2020. So far, 19 governors have mentioned early learning in their state-of-the-state addresses this year, according to a spokesperson for the Education Commission of the States. And, although Gov. Tate Reeves didn’t mention publicly-funded pre-K in his own state-of-the-state speech, he campaigned on expanding the state’s model.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about pre k programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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