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Mississippi is one step closer to funding state-wide pre-kindergarten after a new bill passed the Senate Education Committee Thursday morning. The bill would phase in a pre-k program, and mandate early childhood programs in underperforming school districts, in a state that has adamantly refused to prioritize early childhood education for years.

state funded pre-K
Advocates of early childhood education are surprised by new legislation that could bring state-funded pre-k to Mississippi for the first time. (Photo by Jackie Mader) Credit: Jackie Mader

The proposal, and subsequent passage by the Senate Education Committee, comes as a surprise to advocates of early childhood education. Mississippi is the only state in the south, and one of 11 in the nation that does not currently fund pre-k. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has stated that education will be the focus of this year’s legislative session, but his budget proposal left out funding for pre-k except for a promising private program. Earlier this month, Bryant said that the state must be realistic about pre-k. “I believe that parents are responsible for a child’s earliest learning,” Bryant said. “But unfortunately many have abandoned that duty.”

The proposed bill would provide $8 million in matching funds for early childhood programs in school districts, private child care centers, and Head Start agencies that can raise half the costs of their programs beginning in the 2013-14 school year. The legislation proposes a “phase-in” process that would ultimately provide $50 million in state funds over the next 15 years, reports the Clarion Ledger. It also stipulates requirements for teacher quality, mandates serving at least one meal that meets federal nutrition guidelines, and proposes the use of a research-based curriculum in early childhood classrooms.

Passage of the bill could have important implications for children in Mississippi. The state currently has the highest childhood poverty and obesity rates in the nation and consistently posts some of the lowest test scores. The state has a large and mostly unregulated system of day care and pre-k programs, and there is no guarantee of quality. More than 8,000 children are on a waiting list for Head Start, according to Carol Burnett, founder and director of Mississippi’s Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

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.

Cathy Grace, director of early childhood education for the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative in Amory, Miss., told the Northeast Daily Journal that the proposal “is the best shot we have had in a long time” in preparing students for kindergarten. “It gives flexibility but still maintains accountability.”

The bill is one of nearly a dozen focusing on early childhood education that has been recommended to the Senate Education Committee. “For years and years and years people have had discussions about pre-k and ways to make progress,” Lt. Governor Reeves said, reports the Clarion-Ledger. “This year, House and Senate bills filed will actually make a difference and a first foray for the state into pre-k.”

The Hechinger Report has been taking an extended look at education in the state, with a focus on pre-k.

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