CATHY GRACE: Ask substantive political questions about kids

As the election rhetoric begins there is one thing that all candidates will agree upon – we live in a rural state.

Mississippians proudly define themselves as a rural people. We are rural people who are concerned about our children and their future and wonder where they will live as adults since many of the small towns in which we currently live are struggling with the economics of the 21st century.

We are rural people who believe we are helping our less fortunate through food banks and other community charities, who profess our faith in God by the magnificent church complexes in our towns and the country churches in our small communities, who need leadership to represent all of us – regardless of our age, economic circumstance or family situation.

Over the next several months we will be making hard decisions that will affect lives yet to be born. As of today our children in rural America are in trouble. Consider the documented facts:

- Of the nation's more than 200 persistently poor counties, 195 are rural, with the child poverty rates often exceeding 35 percent.

- U.S. poverty rates in the U.S. rural communities increased 76 percent between 1973-1992.

- 26.3 percent of families in Mississippi with related children 5 years of age and under are living below the poverty level.

Numerous research studies link poverty with deficits in language acquisition in young children. On the 1997 Iowa Test of Basic Skills reading test, a test that allows comparison of Mississippi students in the fifth grade with others across the nation, 5.8 percent of Mississippi students were found to meet advanced standards, 26.7 percent met proficient standards, 45.7 percent performed at the basic level and 21.3 percent performed below basic levels.

Most of this information is not new news, but is significant enough to be repeated as candidates are asking voters to support them so their ideas and policies will be advanced. The Department of Education, public schools across the state and The Barksdale Reading Institute are working diligently to rework and enhance reading programs to address the literacy problems shown in 1997, but much less progress is being made in the educational opportunities afforded to children prior to attending kindergarten.

I have composed a list of questions I intend to ask candidates and urge you to develop your own list. When we vote based on the smartest sound bite or most eye-catching sign we do ourselves an injustice, and our children an even bigger one. My list is one that reflects my concerns and interests, but may strike a chord with other voters in the months ahead:

1. What specific ideas do you have for supporting our childcare industry in the area of more monitoring and safety inspections since today the ratio of childcare regulators to childcare centers is 1:120 and the national average is 1:60?

2. What specific plans do you have for developing a system of training for childcare teachers that also includes a compensation package based on education since right now most childcare teachers, regardless of education, earn less than catfish workers in our processing plants?

3. How do you propose to support industries who employ parents at minimum wage or just a little above who are now faced with the real possibility of changing federal requirements that require individuals to be in the workforce 40 hours a week in order to receive childcare subsidies, since many of these workers are employed less than 40 hours per week or work in factories that are closed periodically when production is slowed?

4. How do you propose to act upon the universal belief that the parent is the child's first teacher when the Mississippi Department of Health reports that in 2001 17.4 percent of babies born in our state are to teens 15-19 years of age, and of those teens 85 percent are single, and we are still without a statewide voluntary parent education program?

5. How do you propose to address the widening gap between Mississippi and other states in our region that provide state support to quality programs for infants through preschoolers through voluntary quality enhancement programs tied to state childcare licensing?

6. What do you plan to do to address the development of partnerships with colleges, universities, Head Start and the childcare industry to address the development of programs designed to promote pre-reading skills in preschool programs?

7. What would you plan to offer to individuals to meet their professional development needs who currently care for young children in their homes without the benefit of statewide training programs specific to their needs?

8. How do you propose to support parents in their education about quality childcare so that the years children spend in a learning setting prior to school entry are respectful of children's intelligence and focused on the best interest of the child?

9. How do you plan to secure financial resources to provide equitable support to the learning of children prior to kindergarten as is given to them at age 5 years and beyond?

These are my questions which may be questioned, but if we don't raise them our youngest will be sidestepped again and our chance for that true rural spirit of taking care of our own will be diluted to taking care of the ones who can vote.

Cathy Grace, Ed.D. is Professor of Education at Mississippi State University and Director of the Early Childhood Institute.