By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves endorsed a proposal Wednesday to provide $8 million in state funds to be directed toward early childhood education efforts that would be overseen by the Mississippi Department of Education.
Reeves, who presides over the Senate, and Gunn were joined by various business leaders, including the Mississippi Economic Council, to announce their support for a program to allow communities to establish collaborative efforts involving public schools, private day-cares, parochial day-cares and Head Start facilities to improve the quality of early childhood education.
Efforts have been under way for years in Mississippi to develop a state-supported early childhood education program. Mississippi is the only state in the South that does not provide funds for pre-kindergarten programs.
The proposal, filed in bills by Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Ocean Springs, and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, “establishes guidelines for teacher qualifications and research-based curriculum for local programs” that obtain state funding. The Department of Education would provide oversight.
“The earlier a child can say his ABCs, pick up a book and name his colors, the better that child will perform when he starts kindergarten or first grade,” Reeves said in a news release. “Through a collaborative approach to early childhood education, we can support those communities that want pre-kindergarten and help those children become better, more successful students.”
Cathy Grace, director of early childhood education for the Gilmore Early Learning Initiative in Amory, said the proposal announced by Gunn and Reeves Wednesday “is the best shot we have had in a long time” in developing a program that helps children enter kindergarten ready to learn. She said it is crucial to do that as Mississippi prepares to enact the Common Core curriculum that will consists of a more demanding curriculum for students.
Grace said the program will work because it allows communities to develop their own programs.
“What is needed in Tupelo is not the same as what is needed in Indianola,” she said. “… It gives flexibility but still maintains accountability.”
Gunn said states that have improved their educational outcomes have pointed to their early childhood education programs as a key.
Gov. Phil Bryant sent out a statement praising the effort. Still, there is not unanimous support for the program.
Jane Boykin, with the Mississippi Delta Licensed Child Care Providers, said many private providers believe they are not being consulted in efforts and that much of the work they have done to get children ready to learn is being ignored.
Another key will be incorporating federally funded Head State centers into the effort.