OUR OPINION: Pre-K remains critical for state to progress

If there was one constant in last week’s Daily Journal series on the effects of poverty and family structure on educational performance in Mississippi, it was that children reared in low-income, single-parent households generally begin their schooling at a distinct disadvantage, and many never catch up.

From the first day they arrive at school, usually in kindergarten, they are behind other children from more stable home environments. Unless there is great intentionality on the part of their teachers, they stay behind. They will make up the overwhelming share of students who eventually drop out of school before they get their high school diploma.

The first few years of life are critical to brain development and preparation for success in school. Children living in poverty – and Mississippi has the highest percentage of any state, about 1 in 3 – are less likely to get what they need from their environment and their caregivers in those early years than if they were in middle-class, two-parent households.

It’s not that low-income parents don’t care. They simply are often not aware of or equipped with the tools, practices and resources to keep their children’s intellectual and social development on track.

If the disadvantages these children face aren’t met early, they are likely to stay behind throughout their time in school, leading to frustration and ultimately repetition of the socio-economic cycle into which they were born.

Yet Mississippi was the last state in the Deep South to allocate state funds to pre-K programs, and to this point it’s a mere $3 million for grants to community collaborations and a similar amount to the Mississippi Building Blocks program, which seeks to improve existing private pre-K centers in the state. We must do much more.

State Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, put it succinctly in Saturday’s final installment of the Daily Journal series in discussing the achievement gap between low-income and higher income students: “Anything we can do to close that achievement gap early, the better off we are. The farther they get progressing through the school, the wider the gap becomes, and the harder it is to close that gap.”

Tollison, like many others, believes pre-K is a critical part of the answer. Mississippi simply must accelerate its efforts to ensure that more children are adequately prepared for school when they arrive.

The benefits of pre-K are well-documented. Mississippi’s sustained commitment, financial and otherwise, is not. That will have to change for there to be long-term, significant advances in raising educational achievement in our state across socio-economic lines.