"The research is in. It is without question these kids (who participated in the Building Blocks Program) are better prepared for kindergarten," said former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, who in 2000 donated $100 million to the state to help ensure elementary students learn to read and more recently has touted the Mississippi Building Blocks program.
During a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Barksdale and others involved in Mississippi Building Blocks said they would request $5 million from the Legislature during the 2013 session. That amount of money, Interim Executive Director April May said would allow the Building Blocks program to reach 2,500 primarily 3- and-4-year-olds.
During the past four years, Building Blocks has worked in more than 350 classrooms across the state, including 18 in Lee County and 14 in Pontotoc County, enacting its program.
The program includes working with the children, mentoring the day care instructors and providing teaching material.
Research done by the University of Missouri concludes that children who participated in the Building Blocks program outperformed those from a control group who were not part of the program in school readiness assessments and also displayed improved growth in social/emotional development.
Those making the biggest gains, according to the study, were from families in poverty.
Those at the news conference included a Maj. Gen. Erick Hearon of Mission Readiness, which is a national group of retired military leaders who have voiced concern about how low educational achievement levels could negatively impact the nation's armed services. Haley Fisackerly, chief executive officer of Entergy, and Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, agreed.
They said early childhood education programs would cut down on the state's dropout rate, develop more productive workers and reduce the number of people in need of government aid.
Mississippi is the only Southern state not to spend any state funds on early childhood education. Wilson said the Building Blocks program is the most cost-efficient way for the state to deal with the issue because it is cheaper than starting a program from scratch - such as adding an additional grade to the public schools.
Barksdale said it would cost $250 million to add another grade to the public schools. He said the Building Blocks program could be enacted statewide for at least $100 million less.
He said Building Blocks supporters have met with both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to request state funding.
Laura Hipp, a spokewoman for Reeves, said, "Lt. Gov. Reeves is impressed by the data collected by Mississippi Building Blocks and supports expanding the program to include more children. We are early in the budget process, and we don't even have a revenue estimate yet. The Legislature will take a look at the funding request during the session."
Mick Bullock, a spokesman for Bryant, said the governor would release his budget recommendations in November.
The question of funding early childhood education remains controversial in Mississippi with some - primarily conservative groups - expressing opposition, or at least doubts. For instance, the conservative leaning for Mississippi Center for Public Policy has cited studies that claim much of the gains made by early childhood education programs are lost by the third grade.