Pre-K budget boost not yet in view

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Budget proposals submitted by both the legislative leadership and Gov. Phil Bryant do not include additional funding for the state’s fledgling pre-kindergarten program.

That’s the case even though there is growing consensus that a larger investment must be made in early childhood education to improve the state’s schools. The state Board of Education and new state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, as well as state business leaders, want more funding for it.

WRIGHT

WRIGHT

The state board has requested that funds for a pilot program approved by the 2013 Legislature be doubled to $6 million. But the budget recommendations developed by both Bryant and the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee leave funding at $3 million for the Early Learning Collaborative Act.

The final budget will be adopted by the 2014 Legislature, which convenes in January.

“I am hopeful we can get a little additional money put into the final budget approved in April,” said Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. “There is interest in a lot of communities” in early childhood education.

The two budget proposals also include level funding of $3 million for a Building Blocks Program established by the business community that provides training and learning materials for private day-care operations.

Before the 2013 session, Mississippi was the only state in the Southeast and one of only four in the nation not to provide state funding for early childhood education, according to state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.

Various groups are now touting the importance of early childhood education to jump start the state’s public school system, which continues to lag behind most of the nation in academic performance. Business groups, such as the Mississippi Economic Council, have spoken of the importance of early childhood education.

Attorney General Jim Hood says he believes improving early childhood education would be an effective tool in reducing the state’s prison population, which per capita is the second highest in the nation.

“Reading to kids at age 3 to 6 will have greater impact than anything we can do in criminal justice,” Hood said recently. Hood wants early childhood to be part a package of legislation designed to reduce prison costs over an extended period of time.

New state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said recently that she believes the most effective early childhood education would be pre-kindergaren programs incorporated into schools. She said then the state board could ensure certified teachers.

But in the meantime Wright said the collaborative programs created by the 2013 Legislature could be an effective bridge.

Under the program, the state Department of Education sets standards for pre-kindergarten consortiums that could include local school districts, Head Start centers and private child-care providers for a voluntary 4-year-old program.

This week the state Board of Education is slated to award grants to communities that want to operate early childhood programs in collaboration with various entities.

About 30 communities applied for the grants, including a dozen from Northeast Mississippi. The dozen include the Tupelo School District partnering with Lee County Excel by 5 to provide additional resources for pre-K education and to train pre-K teachers.

Wright said the hope is that the collaborative program can receive additional funding in the 2014 Legislature so that additional grants can be awarded.

“We are doing a pilot program, but we need to be doing a lot more than that,” she told the Daily Journal editorial board last week.

When the Legislature passed the Early Learning Collaborative Act last session, it was estimated that it would take $34 million to essentially fully fund it to cover 15,000 children.

Wright and others said the research is clear that early childhood learning is a key element in whether a child will learn in later grades.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com