It was not that long ago that the idea of early childhood education was controversial in the halls of the Mississippi Capitol. Many politicians, especially Republicans, argued that the government had no role in early childhood education.
But now the debate isn't over the concept as much as it is over the particulars, including funding.
The business community is becoming more involved in early education. The Mississippi Economic Council is a partner in Building Blocks, a program designed as a pilot to look for ways to improve early childhood education in Mississippi.
MEC also said polling indicates strong public support for early childhood education.
Anthony Topazi, former Mississippi Power Co. head and former chair of the MEC, said in a Southern Education Foundation report, "Early education won't fix our work force issues tomorrow, but if we don't fix it now, we won't have a solution for work force issues in the next 20 years."
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a probable candidate for governor in 2011 and a politician who routinely touts his conservative principles, has created a task force to look at the issues surrounding early childhood education.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour also has been a consistent advocate for early childhood education.
In a report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, Barbour is quoted as saying, "Effective early education will be essential to the continuing economic growth of the state."
What is at issue in Mississippi is what an early childhood education program will look like and whether the state will invest in such a program.
Mississippi currently invests $3 million per year, primarily in a program that provides a quality rating of private daycare centers for parents. Bryant's committee is determining if other state funds are directed toward early childhood education.
And even that uncertainty over what should be common knowledge might represent the disjointed nature of the early childhood education system in Mississippi.
Most Southern states, many led by Republican governors, have invested heavily in early childhood education.
In Arkansas, former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, now a Fox News host, helped create a $100 million program; Louisiana and Georgia have similar programs; and Alabama has a program that costs between $10 million and $30 million annually.
When Barbour campaigned in 2003, he touted early childhood education, but said the state could not afford to fund a program.
Instead, Mississippi would have to work to upgrade the extensive network of private programs, federally funded Head Start Centers and church-based programs.
That is essentially what Building Blocks is doing - providing mentoring, curriculum and educational opportunities to private daycare employees in a pilot program. Building Blocks is operating on $10 million in private contributions and a federal grant.
It is documenting results of its efforts. Executive Director Laurie Smith told Bryant's Task Force recently that Building Blocks has had early success.
Bryant, like many others, said improving the state's early childhood education efforts is important.
He said his goal with his task force is to bring "all those connected with early childhood education together in one room."
As far as whether state funds should be spent on a program, Bryant said, "To me the jury is still out. I would like to see more results. Some other states have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and have not had the results they had hoped to get."
Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, said during a recent speech in Jackson that while preschool programs in other states are new, there is evidence that they are working. For instance, he said Georgia students are now scoring at the national average in the fourth grade in math.
"That was not true when the pre-K program began," he said.
He said evidence also suggests that pre-K programs cut down on the number of students who are forced to repeat kindergarten and the first grade.
In 2008, one of every 14 kindergarten students and one of every 15 first grade students repeated the first grade in Mississippi.
"This problem is real, costly and precisely what high-quality pre-K has proven to address," the Southern Education Foundation report found.
Reducing the number of early grade repeaters would provide financial benefits almost immediately, Suitts said. Over a longer period of time, it could raise the high school graduation rate and improve the overall economy of the state.
Suitts also pointed out that additional federal money might be available to help create a comprehensive program in Mississippi. Early childhood education is a priority of the Obama administration, he said, and bipartisan legislation is possible to fund such an effort.
Early childhood education is important, Smith said, because science shows "90 percent of brain growth occurs before kindergarten begins."
Children from poor backgrounds, whose parents are more likely to be undereducated, often receive less of the stimulation that leads to brain growth.
State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham said Mississippi has the highest percentage of children who enter kindergarten unprepared to learn.
The problem, Burnham said, is that because no one has described exactly how an early childhood education program should look in Mississippi, it's hard to build momentum to develop one - even though the issue has been discussed since McCoy carried his bill to the floor of the House almost 20 years ago.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.