LLOYD GRAY: Start early to end cycle

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Most, if not all, of Mississippi’s last-place finishes in so many national measurements can be attributed directly to a long-entrenched cycle of poverty. For too many in our state, that cycle has defied reversal.
Whether it’s per capita income, literacy, school performance, teen pregnancy, the general health of the population or any number of other indicators, the stubborn persistence of poverty is at the root of the low rankings. It is often both cause and effect – thus the self-perpetuating cycle.
The data, hammered home again at last week’s CREATE State of the Region meeting, are clear: Children from poor families in Mississippi and this region of the state are way behind their counterparts in school performance, and their counterparts aren’t where they should be.
Business leader and educational philanthropist Jim Barksdale made the point that saying poor children or racial minorities can’t learn as quickly and as well as economically advantaged white children is a cop-out, a “myth,” as he called it. They can with the right approach, the right teachers, the right administrative leadership and a sustained commitment.
But he and others who decry the achievement gap also emphasize that we’re missing our best chance to raise up these underperforming kids by not giving them educational opportunities earlier in life at the most critical time of brain development.
Mississippi is one of only 11 states without some form of state-funded pre-K education, and the only one in the South. The fact that we’re the poorest state – and that children from economically deprived homes start out with built-in educational disadvantages – makes that lack of investment penny-wise and pound-foolish, to put it mildly.
The strongest predictor of a future prison inmate is his reading level in the third grade. And it’s poor children who have the mightiest struggle there.
An MIT study found every $1 invested in pre-K brings $13 in return. When it’s viewed in that light, saying we can’t afford pre-K is ludicrous. What business person wouldn’t jump at that ROI?
Policymakers these days sometimes let an either/or mentality get in the way of doing what so obviously needs to be done. It’s possible to demand better performance, accountability and efficiency from schools and still fund an essential missing ingredient like pre-K.
This isn’t some propaganda campaign by the education establishment. It’s a data-driven mandate: To improve educational achievement, the first essential step to reversing the cycle of poverty, early intervention is a necessity.
Mississippi has made substantial economic progress in the last few decades. We need to acknowledge and celebrate that. But too many people still lack the education and skills to be able to sustain and build on that progress.
A serious commitment to an early childhood education component – the foundation on which everything else depends – isn’t the only thing needed to get us out of poverty-induced last-place finishes, but it’s probably the single most important step we could take.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.