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JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi is the only state in the South that does not fund preschool. That may change this spring if the legislature passes one of two bills to subsidize select programs. But Mississippi is likely to remain an outlier among southern states – as the legislation (HB781 and SB2395) won’t give limited preschool seats to needy children first. Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Southern Education Desk Reporter, Annie Gilbertson, teams up with the Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader, to explain.

Helper: What’s that?

Mississippi legislation
Children at a child care center in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer) Credit: Kim Palmer

4-year-old: A hippopotamus.

Helper: What’s that?

4-year-old: An elephant.

Mader: Next question: Is preschool really worth it?

Gilbertson: Wait, Jackie, these four-year-olds are not about to discuss the costs and benefits of their classrooms.

Mader: Well, that would be impressive, Annie. But no. Many Mississippi parents are weighing the issue, though. And so is the legislature.  Two bills that would create subsidized preschool for the first time in Mississippi have people talking. What – if anything – can we gain from the investment?

Gilbertson: Let’s hear the perspective of this parent of a four-year-old, Shari Cooper.

Parent Shari Cooper: “Preschool would help them develop where they need to be mentally.  I mean I work with her at home, but it would help me like when I’m at work, she can still get what she wants.”

Gilbertson: Without the option of preschool, Cooper sends her child to a Jackson daycare that serves low-income parents instead.  And even if the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to pay for preschool, those like Cooper may not see the benefit.

Mader: She may not because unlike every other Southern state – with the exception of Alabama – the bill would not put disadvantaged children at the front of the line when seats are limited.

Gilbertson: By disadvantaged, Jackie, do you mean those from low income families, those with disabilities or those with limited English proficiency.

Mader: Exactly. And here’s why it matters. Dr. Doug Imig, a researcher with the Urban Child Institute in Memphis says, that’s precisely who states should aggressively target with preschool.

Dr. Doug Imig: ” What pre-kindergarten does for poor kids that is so important is it gives them the leg up to overcome inequality at the starting gate so that they start school much closer to their middle income peers.”

Mader: Which begs the question – why hasn’t the Mississippi legislature just changed the bill so needy kids get first dibs?

Gilbertson: Well, there are some who say it’s political – a bill that directly funds disadvantaged kids’ seats would undermine the idea that all students need “school choices” and would not survive a Republican controlled legislature.

Mader: But advocates for the bills say it does target disadvantaged kids, if only indirectly. Rachel Canter of Mississippi First helped draft the bills to favor preschool programs near low-performing schools.

Rachel Canter:  “And so a community that comes forward and says “We’ve got a lot of children that do not do well once they enter elementary school and this is how we are going to provide a new or higher quality experience for them,” is going to have a stronger application.”

Mader: So, Annie, the focus is on the overall need of the area, not specific students.

Gilbertson: Which is why skeptics worry that could mean those specific students might not get served. Carol Burnett of the Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative says a preschool bill that doesn’t have an air-tight focus on serving disadvantaged kids is missing the point.

Carol Burnett: “It’s going to benefit the communities that have the resources and leave behind the communities that don’t have the resources.”

Mader: But despite the criticism, the preschool bills are enjoying historic bipartisan support- though that doesn’t always ensure passage.

Gilbertson: And Tuesday is the deadline, Jackie. If the legislature moves forward with one of the bills, a few thousand of today’s two- and three-year-olds will likely be the first to receive state-subsidized preschool.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Southern Education Desk, a consortium of public media stations reporting on education issues in the South. Also, with help from high school interns Adria Walker, Khari Johnson and Ryan Lishman.

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