OUR OPINION: Pre-K meets its first strategic deadline day

Today’s deadline for school districts and other qualifying institutions and organizations to declare their intent to seek state funds for pre-kindergarten education is the tip of what many Mississippians hope eventually will become a new educational reality: statewide funding for pre-K education.

The effort, with its first stirrings dating to the early 2000s, became an intense bipartisan push of public school supporters to carve a foothold in which districts and other entities with strong plans, teaching, and experience could receive, for the first time, some funding from the state to teach pre-K children.

This year, in the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers approved a $3 million program for which districts and other entities could compete for funds to help pay for early childhood education. It is deemed an essential step by people who measure and track such results as a linchpin of preparing children for kindergarten and for the academic challenges following in ever-increasing complexity.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour said in 2003 soon after his election, “A lot of people think of education as kindergarten through 12th grade … but today I’ll talk about education from pre-kindergarten to workforce training, because our efforts must go beyond K-12.”

Republican Barbour was right, as have been many Democrats and other Republicans who support pre-K, but Barbour’s words were spoken before Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession and some hot political situations seemed to push pre-kindergarten funding to the side.

A tough, diverse coalition hung on, and the $3 million available for grants is the result.

We hope the grants awarded go to the programs with the greatest promise and so-far strongest results and that improvements for children become evident from year one.

The state Board of Education is scheduled to announce the groups awarded grants on Dec. 19. The total available is supposed to rise to $6 million in 2014, and the hope is for it to build toward full funding.

Statistics provided during the 2013 session show an appropriation of about $34 million to cover 15,000 students.

Tupelo School Superintendent Gearl Loden said at a recent meeting the district intends to apply for a grant. Sometime today, the MDE should know how many qualifying collaborations stated their intent to compete.

The absolute best effort must be given to this opportunity.