Op-Ed: Why Mississippi should be funding early childhood education

At the National Institute for Early Education Research, we greeted with hope the news that state education chief Hank Bounds and Gov. Haley Barbour proposed to begin funding preschool education for Mississippi’s disadvantaged children.

It looked as if Mississippi might at last move off the “dirty dozen” list of states that still don’t fund preschool education.

When the Governor’s Early Learning and Collaborative Act of 2007 passed the Legislature, but no funding was appropriated, those prospects dimmed.

This is troubling.

More than half of Mississippi’s young children live below 200 percent of the poverty line and 40 percent live in a single-parent family.

Voluntary state-funded Pre-K could do much to enrich their lives and improve their future chances of school and economic success.

While the recently passed legislation doesn’t provide a high level of services, it does represent a much-needed start. Failure to adequately invest in the state’s young children is one reason Mississippi ranks at the bottom among the states when it comes to jobs and income.

According to a report by the Southern Education Foundation, both black and white students in Mississippi score near the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in reading, math and science.

The state also has one of the nation’s highest dropout rates. Bounds reports that for every 100 students that begin ninth grade, 59 will complete high school, and only 13 will receive a college degree. And, it all starts when young children in Mississippi enter the kindergarten door years behind the typical 5-year-old.

The SEF report specifies pre-K as one of four strategies to improve the state’s educational achievement. Study after study shows that high-quality Pre-K can improve educational outcomes and help children become more productive workers and citizens. That is why business leaders and economists are speaking out about the benefits of Pre-K.

The governor has spoken glowingly of the investments made by Nissan and Toyota in Mississippi. By investing in its young children, Mississippi can hasten the day when more such investments are made in the state, and when fewer companies pack up and leave for states like Tennessee where the governor has committed to offering a good educational start to every child.

At present, most 3- and 4-year-olds in Mississippi do not have access to high-quality preschool education.

Funding Gov. Barbour’s Early Learning and Collaborative Act of 2007 can set the state on the path to changing that.

To borrow some words from the state song, it is time to “Go, Mississippi, get up and go.” Right now, state tax revenue is on the rise. That gives the state’s leaders a chance to invest in early learning without new taxes.

If they can’t even start investing now, I fear that the state’s leaders are never going to get up and go, much less “lead the show” when it comes to early education.

Mississippi should not let this opportunity slip away.

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
Economist and Director,
National Institute for Early Education Research

Dr. W. Steven Barnett is director, National Institute for Early Education Research in New Brunswick, N.J. He is a professor of education economics and author of numerous research reports on the returns to society of early childhood education.

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