Former generals say Miss. needs preschool program

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A group of former military officers are joining the effort calling for Mississippi to set up a state-funded preschool program.

In a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, four retired generals said that more than 75 percent of young Mississippians are ineligible to join the military because they don’t graduate from high school, can’t pass a basic skills test, are physically unfit, or have a criminal record. The generals said the best way to improve academic achievement and physical fitness is to create state-funded preschool programs.

Gov. Phil Bryant appeared briefly to support the plan. The governor tried earlier this year to move child care licensing from the Department of Health to the Department of Human Services, but lawmakers rejected that plan after private child care center operators objected

Bryant has said the state doesn’t have enough money to move ahead with a preschool program this year. Instead, he’s promised to study the problem.

“Obviously there are financial challenges,” Bryant said. “This year we tried as best we could to bring together a collaborative effort.”

The group, called Mission: Readiness, says that 38 percent of Mississippians don’t graduate from high school, and of the 62 percent who do, 38 percent of them can’t pass the military’s basic skills test. Both are disqualifiers to joining the armed forces. Another large share of young adults can’t pass the military’s fitness test because they’re too fat.

“We feel like in Mississippi we have between 80 percent and 90 percent of that age group population that can’t serve,” said Roger Shields, one of the retired generals.

The generals said research shows the best way to get kids on a path to academic and physical success is to enroll them in high-quality preschool. Right now, federal dollars pay for nearly half of Mississippi 4-year-olds to attend some kind of preschool, but states with successful programs of their own enroll around 75 percent of 4-year-olds.

“The most proven approach to help kids graduate starts early,” said retired Gen. Buford Blount III.

Claiborne Barksdale, a longtime advocate for better education in the state, said he’s made the same appeal for state-funded preschool before, but said the new voices could help change the minds of lawmakers who have yet to follow through on 20-year-old promises to expand the state’s role.

“To bring in the firepower of the United States military, I believe, will get the attention of the people who control the purse strings,” Barksdale said.