EDITORIAL: Starting early

By NEMS Daily Journal

It’s not as if another study was needed to prove the benefits of early childhood education, but the latest is one of the most expansive and impressive.
The argument for an expanded pre-school emphasis in Mississippi and elsewhere has been to prevent at-risk children from falling behind early in school and never catching up, heightening the likelihood that they will drop out before finishing high school. Results of a 25-year study that followed more than 1,000 low-income Chicago children into adulthood demonstrates that those who had high-quality pre-school educational experiences fared better in many categories well beyond their school years than those who didn’t.
The study was published last week in the journal Science. The results affirm earlier, smaller studies and demonstrate the value of early childhood education, which “gives you your biggest bang for the buck,” according to Dr. Pamela High, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee that deals with early childhood issues.
Mississippi’s failure to provide state funding for public early childhood education – it is the only Southern state that hasn’t – is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Repeatedly through the years it has been said that the state can’t afford it, and on the surface it would seem that way. But Mississippi is paying far more in the back-end costs of public services and incarceration of adults who fall behind and drop out of the educational system than it would with a front-end early childhood program.
This is not just the mantra of educators and those with a particular professional interest in expanding the reach of educational services. It’s recognized officially by state business leaders through the Mississippi Economic Council’s emphasis on the issue as a top priority for the state and its inclusion in the Blueprint Mississippi plan for future state economic growth.
The clear recognition has dawned that Mississippi, historically a state with a disproportionate amount of poverty and a high percentage of children who come to school unprepared, will never achieve its full economic potential if those children don’t have a better chance starting out. What remains is to generate the political will to build a system of early childhood education throughout the state.
For now, the effort is limited to working with private child care providers to improve the quality of their educational services to children. The Mississippi Building Blocks program has a relatively small state appropriation that provides incentives to child care centers to upgrade their offerings and overall management. It’s designed to create models to emulate, and that’s certainly a start.
But Mississippi won’t be where it needs to be until there’s a comprehensive statewide program that includes, minimally, 4-year-olds.
Significant strides have been made in recent years in the study of brain development, and the data underscore the critical importance of the first few years of life in determining a child’s future intellectual and social capacity. By the time children get to kindergarten at age 5, most brain development has already taken place.
The state’s public school system can’t make up for all the deprivations that children living in poverty experience. But it’s incumbent on the state to make a greater effort than it now does to mitigate some of those deprivations before children enroll in the K-12 track.
As one more study demonstrates, the quality of their lives – as well as the economic health and social cohesiveness of our communities and state – are riding on it.