Pre-K advocates encouraged by US education secretary

Teacher Raven Wigginton, center, reads "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" to the pre-kindergarten students Friday afternoon at the Amory Early Learning Academy. Natural Standifer, seated at right, is also a teacher in the classroom. (Lauren Wood)

Teacher Raven Wigginton, center, reads “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” to the pre-kindergarten students Friday afternoon at the Amory Early Learning Academy. Natural Standifer, seated at right, is also a teacher in the classroom. (Lauren Wood)

By Chris Kieffer
Daily Journal

For years, advocates of improving education for Mississippi’s 4-year-old children have been beset by frustrations.

Until last spring, the state was the only one in the South and one of 11 in the nation that did not spend any money on early-childhood education.

So when the United States Secretary of Education praised the state’s efforts on that front earlier this week, the remarks were noteworthy.

“I think Mississippi is really trying to work hard in this effort and in this area,” Arne Duncan said on Wednesday during an Education Writers Association web panel about early education.

Duncan was speaking about the President Barack Obama administration’s “Preschool for All” proposal that would invest $75 billion over 10 years to help participating states expand high-quality preschool programs. He was asked by a Daily Journal reporter whether Mississippi would be a good partner for funding under the plan or whether it would need to do more.

“Mississippi is a state where we know there is tremendous need and tremendous inequity and where academic outcomes aren’t where we want them to be or should be,” Duncan said. “I’ve talked to folks who are real passionate educators in Mississippi and there is a real effort there to do more and to invest. We would love to do more to partner with a state like Mississippi.”

Those words “fired a lot of people up,” said Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Monroe County Gilmore Foundation, which does extensive work in early childhood education.

Mississippi’s Legislature agreed last spring to spend $6 million on two early-learning initiatives – $3 million on a program that would provide grants to community collaborations and $3 million on the Mississippi Building Blocks program that works to improve the quality of existing centers.

Cathy Grace, who has been among the states’ biggest advocates for expanded pre-K, said those efforts are “a small step” that Mississippi must continue to increase. The former director of early childhood development policy for the national Children’s Defense Fund said she was encouraged Duncan was aware “things are moving in Mississippi.”

“That is very positive, that he acknowledges the political will to start the program,” said Grace, who is director of early childhood education for Gilmore.

Whether Mississippi would participate in the “Preschool For All” plan remains to be seen. For one, the program must be approved by Congress and currently depends upon a cigarette tax whose passage will be difficult.

Participating states would need to provide matching funds, and their percentage would increase through the years. They also would need to meet several standards.

According to a White House estimate, Mississippi would receive $21.4 million in the first year and be required to match with $2.1 million to serve about 2,608 children.

Asked about Duncan’s comments, the spokesman for Gov. Phil Bryant said the governor is “committed to improving public education in Mississippi.”

“While parents are ultimately responsible for ensuring their children are prepared to learn and grow, Governor Bryant believes initiatives like Mississippi Building Blocks and the state’s new pre-K collaborative model will provide good opportunities to support school readiness in young children,” said Mick Bullock.

Regardless of what happens with the plan, Grace said the discussions about 4-year-old education in Mississippi are encouraging.

“All of the conversations around this are good because it gets people engaged in the programs already in place,” she said.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com