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A new conversation about pre-k is emerging in Mississippi as citizens examine the reasons behind the state’s woeful academic performance—documented in the first story of our “Mississippi Learning” series and since taken up by other news media in the state.

mississippi education ranking

This is an important conversation in Mississippi, which has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the United States and some of the lowest test scores. The Magnolia State remains the only state in the South that doesn’t fund pre-k.

A recent report on the ACT, used in college admissions, shows that Mississippi’s children not only start behind—they stay behind. Only 11 percent of the state’s students were ready for college-level work in English, math, reading and science—compared to a national average of 25 percent.

Mississippi’s littlest learners often start school at a disadvantage, our reporting has found. The Clarion Ledger recently published a series on the topic, showcasing an array of opinions. The paper also editorialized in favor of a state-funded pre-k program. Earlier this month, I participated in an American Public Media podcast on the topic.

Syndicated columnist Sid Salter weighed in as well, in a piece that has appeared in newspapers throughout the state.

“[T]he undeniable fact that Mississippi is trailing the nation and the region in early childhood education is at times just another brick in the public policy wall that impedes the state’s long term growth and development,” Salter wrote.

The lagging performance of Mississippi’s children makes it clear that ignoring opportunities to stimulate young minds before formal classroom education begins can have dire consequences. The human brain reaches 80 percent of its adult size by age 3 and a full 90 percent by age 5. And research shows that children who have had a high-quality preschool experience end up with larger vocabularies and higher achievement, along with more advanced social skills, than their peers who haven’t.

Entering kindergarten without certain skills is a recipe for continually staying behind. Yet Mississippi has so far been unable to make state funded pre-k a priority, Salter noted in his column, citing economic reasons.

“The biggest obstacle to state-funded pre-kindergarten in Mississippi is fiscal, not partisan,” he wrote. “Lawmakers have struggled to provide bare bones funding to the state’s existing K-12 public schools, universities and community colleges for decades.”

Where the pre-k conversation will go in the state remains uncertain. Much will depend on Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and the state legislature when they resume a discussion about education in January that is likely to focus on charter schools and reform. It’s possible, though, that pre-k could become part of the discussion, as it has countless times before. But will discussion lead to action?

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