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Across the country, financial support for pre-kindergarten waned over the last two years as states grappled with budget woes, the report’s authors found.
(The Hechinger Report will be reporting in depth on education issues in Mississippi over the next 18 months, with a focus on early childhood education.)
Mississippi has long been in a minority of states that do not fund traditional pre-k classes. The other states include Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
The NIEER report notes, however, that Mississippi does have a relatively new program through which foundations and businesses provide training and support to private childcare centers, known as Mississippi Building Blocks.
Hechinger Report Editor Liz Willen spoke about this story on the Attiude with Arnie Arnesen radio show. Her interview starts at the 23:00 mark. (mp3)
In addition, about 90 school districts across the state offer some kind of publicly funded pre-k program. Half of them use federal Title 1 money to fund the classes; others just enroll 3- and 4-year-olds with diagnosed disabilities. Under federal law, schools must serve students qualifying for special education services starting at the age of 3.
Another 25,000 Mississippi youngsters attend federally funded Head Start centers for low-income families, according to NIEER’s report. In 2011, 24 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and 36 percent of its 4-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start.
Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, which advocates for public education in Mississippi, said the major obstacle to creating a state-funded pre-k program is a lack of money, not a lack of political support.
Loome said she’s “cautiously optimistic” the state will someday fund pre-k on at least a limited scale. “A majority of the legislators agree we need to address pre-k,” she said. But “there’s a lot of debate about how to make that happen.”
One proposal that died before it even came up in the state’s legislature this session would have provided competitive state grants to districts hoping to start or expand pre-k programs.
Loome said her organization favors a collaborative program among existing childcare centers, school districts and the state aimed at putting more qualified teachers in classrooms instead of a competitive grant program.
Mississippi Building Blocks is somewhat similar to Loome’s proposal—except that it relies on private money. Its goal is to improve the quality of existing childcare centers by sponsoring on-site mentors, scholarships for staff to receive training and parent advocates for families. The program, begun in 2009, currently assists about 100 classrooms per year.
States trim spending on pre-k
Nationally, Alaska and Oklahoma made the steepest cuts, reducing funding for pre-kindergarten by more than $1,000 per child in 2011.
Overall, state funding for pre-k programs dropped by a total of nearly $60 million between 2010 and 2011, according to the report.
In the last decade, access for 4-year-olds has increased while resources have dropped, suggesting some states might be sacrificing quality in order to expand their offerings. Since 2001, average state spending per child enrolled (adjusted for inflation) has dropped by about $715, or 15 percent.
During the same time period, the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs doubled, from 14 percent to 28 percent. The percentage of 3-year-olds enrolled went from 3 percent to 4 percent.
Ten years ago, 37 states contributed funds to 42 different pre-kindergarten programs. Currently, there are 51 programs in 39 states, and two programs in Washington, D.C.
In a conference call with reporters last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the expanded access, noting that “in many communities pre-school is now just a normal part of school.” But he stressed that “it can’t just be about access. It’s got to be about quality.”
W. Steven Barnett, NIEER’s director, said “research tells us the only programs that really help children are high-quality ones.”