OUR OPINION: Racing for the top becomes state priority

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s application for $50 million in early childhood education funds through the federal Race to the Top Program could open the door to substantially enhanced pre-k education progress statewide through an array of existing programs.
The $50 million proposal, with strong input from Cathy Grace, who chairs the governor’s State Early Childhood Advisory Council, was sent to the Department of Education last week, and an answer is expected before the end of 2011.
Grace, who is from Tupelo, is a nationally recognized early childhood education expert working with the Children’s Defense Fund, a nationwide advocacy organization.
The $50 million request is the maximum allowed in a category of states in which Mississippi is placed. It would be paid over four years, and it cannot be used to start new programs.
Part of the funds, for example, could be applied to the Tupelo Public School District’s early childhood center program. All programs would be rated by a statewide formula.
The proposal includes multiple noteworthy elements:
• It could provide funds for public school programs, licensed home day care and program centers like Head Start.
• It would provide funds to advance the certification of pre-k workers, rewarding them with bonuses on completion of the work.
• It would lead to better coordination with curriculum in K-12.
• It would tie in early childhood parenting involvement and savings for a college education.
• It would empower a program for doctors to learn more about dealing with developmental issues in children.
• It would provide support for developing longitudinal data, which is, by definition of the National Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research, a “dataset that tracks the same type of information on the same subjects at multiple points in time. For example, part of a longitudinal dataset could contain specific students and their standardized test scores in six successive years.”
The proposal, which was developed by the advisory council that consists of educators and professionals in business outside education, plus the governor’s education adviser, is directly responsive to President Obama’s and the Department of Education’s emphases on early childhood learning.
Grace said winning the grant would “have a longer impact than just four years. It is an institutional culture change that would occur.”
Mississippi is the only state in the South that does not have a state-funded pre-kindergarten, and prospects for winning approval of a state-funded universal program are economically dim, even though it remains a valid choice.
Grace also said in an interview with Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer that every licensed child care provider in Mississippi would be required to participate in the Mississippi Child Care Quality Ratings system if the state’s application is successful. That detailed system measures those centers and the quality of education they provide. Participation is currently optional, and a mandatory system would significantly ratchet up the overall standards.
The ranking system is based on multiple standards, and providers are rated on a scale from 1 to 5.
The initiative allowing parents of children in centers with a high-quality rating to participate in a college savings program would tie into the state’s existing MPACT college savings plan, a successful venture, and it could provide matching funds for some low-income participants.
Mississippi’s application calls for cross-training of medical professionals to help them “read” children’s developmental progression and to speak with parents about things they should be doing to help promote development.
Grace was a founder of the Family Resource Center in Tupelo, and its services were a key factor in Tupelo’s winning an All-America City Award in 1999, the last until it won again this year.
“It is all coordinated,” Grace said. “It is not programs that will just be hanging out there.”
Clarity and coordination can strengthen all the existing resources even if they are not all precisely alike.