By Sid Salter, Syndicated Columnist
The bad news is that Mississippi remains the only state in the South without a state-funded early children education program. Only eight states nationwide do not invest in some form of early childhood education and only 11 states don’t have a state-funded pre-kindergarten program.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, here’s what is trending in early childhood education across the nation:
• Total state funding for pre-K programs decreased by more than $548 million across the 40 states that offer pre-K.
• State pre-K funding per child decreased by $442 (inflation-adjusted) from the previous year to $3,841. This is the first time since the group began tracking state pre-K in 2002 that funding per child spending has fallen below $4,000.
• State funding per child for pre-K declined in 27 of 40 states with programs, when adjusted for inflation. In 13 states per-child spending fell by 10 percent or more from the previous year. Only 12 states increased funding per child in 2011-2012.
The good news is that in 2013, Mississippi lawmakers signed into law a limited pre-K program as part of a series of Republican-backed education reforms. The program seeks to provide high quality pre-K through a collaborative delivery model starting no later than the 2014-2015 school year. The legislation provides matching funds for early childhood programs in school districts, private child care centers, and Head Start agencies that can raise half the costs of their programs beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
Mississippi has an estimated 25,765 students enrolled in federally-funded Head Start programs. Another 5,274 children not enrolled in Head Start are enrolled in special education programs.
In 2008, the privately-funded Mississippi Building Blocks program was launched to foster improvements in the state’s private child care centers and to create a credentialing program for child care workers. In 2009, the state provided $3 million for a pilot Miss. Child Care Quality Step Program.
In the poorest state in the union, these are meaningful steps. But it is Mississippi’s lack of early childhood education competitiveness with our regional neighbors — the states that border Mississippi — that is most immediately disturbing. That’s an education issue and an economic development issue.
Some 1.3 million children in 39 states are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs nationwide. The national average spending on pre-K programs in 2011 was $4,151 per student.
How far behind are we? Take a look across our state’s borders:
•Alabama in 2012 spent $19 million on a voluntary pre-K program that enrolled 3,906 students at a state spending cost of $4,887 per student. As in Mississippi, private sector involvement has been substantial and 94 percent of the state’s school districts are participating.
•Arkansas in 2012 spent $111 million on their pre-kindergarten program, the Arkansas Better Chance program. The ABC program’s resources come from public school dollars, an excise tax on beer, and state child care funding. The program enrolled 20,520 students at a state spending cost of $5,409 per student with 98 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
•Louisiana in 2012 had multiple state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. These programs received a combined total of nearly $91 million in state funding. The programs enrolled 20,421 students at a state funding cost of $4,459 per student with 96 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
•Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program has grown into one of the most successful in the country. Tennessee in 2012 spent $84.2 million on a pre-K program that enrolled 18,609 students at a state cost of $4,528 per student with 100 percent of the state’s school districts participating.
Money remains the biggest obstacle to full-blown pre-K education in Mississippi. Lawmakers have struggled to provide bare bones funding to the state’s existing K-12 public schools, universities and community colleges for decades.
If Mississippi is going to remain competitive both nationally and with our regional neighboring states, how much longer can Mississippi be the only state in the South without a comprehensive publicly-funded pre-K program?