STARKVILLE – With the federal, state and local governments still struggling to climb out of the revenue hole caused by a prolonged recession, rising energy prices, and increased regulation of the nation's banks, the undeniable fact that Mississippi is tra

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – With the federal, state and local governments still struggling to climb out of the revenue hole caused by a prolonged recession, rising energy prices, and increased regulation of the nation’s banks, the 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.
Mississippi remains the only state in the South without a state-funded early childhood education program. Only eight states nationwide do not invest in some form of early childhood education and only 11 states don’t have a state-funded pre-kindergarten program.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Mississippi has an estimated 25,406 students enrolled in federally-funded Head Start programs. Another 5,250 children not enrolled in Head Start are enrolled in special education programs.
In 2008, the privately-funded Mississippi Building Blocks program was launched to foster improvements in the state’s private child care centers and to create a credentialing program for child care workers. In 2009, the state provided $3 million for a pilot Mississippi Child Care Quality Step Program.
But as I noted in a 2008 column on this topic, it is Mississippi’s lack of early childhood education competitiveness with our regional neighbors – the states that border Mississippi – that is most immediately disturbing.
Some 1.3 million children in 39 states are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs nationwide. The national average spending on pre-K programs in 2011 was $4,151 per student.
How far behind are we? Take a look across our state’s borders:
*Alabama in 2011 spent $17.5 million on a voluntary pre-K program that enrolled 3,870 students at a state spending cost of $4,544 per student. As in Mississippi, private sector involvement has been substantial and 96 percent of the state’s school districts are participating.
*Arkansas in 2011 spent $111 million on its pre-kindergarten program, the Arkansas Better Chance program. The ABC program’s resources come from public school dollars, an excise tax on beer, and state child care funding. The program enrolled 22,015 students at a state spending cost of $5,021 per student with 98 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
*Louisiana in 2011 had multiple state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. These programs received a combined total of nearly $194 million in state funding. The programs enrolled 20,258 students at a state funding cost of $4,669 per student with 96 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
*Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program has grown into one of the most successful in the country. Tennessee in 2011 spent $85.2 million on a pre-K program that enrolled 18,453 students at a state cost of $4,620 per student with 100 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
At the Neshoba County Fair, Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn all talked about changing the face of public education in Mississippi. Too often, education reform has been made a partisan issue in this state. It isn’t. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats share a deep frustration over the state’s lack of educational attainment, the state’s terrible dropout epidemic, and chronic failing schools and school districts.
The biggest obstacle to state-funded pre-kindergarten in Mississippi is fiscal, not partisan. Lawmakers have struggled to provide bare bones funding to the state’s existing K-12 public schools, universities and community colleges for decades.
But if Mississippi is going to remain competitive both nationally and with our regional neighboring states, how much longer can Mississippi be the only state in the South without a publicly-funded pre-K program?
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.