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Barbour: $1M to help parents help their young children

Gov. Haley Barbour says Mississippi can’t afford a full-scale, publicly funded preschool anytime soon, but he’ll include $1 million in his budget to develop an experimental program to help the parents of young children.

Speaking at an early childhood conference his office sponsored Tuesday, Barbour likened the child care resource and referral system to the cooperative extension service, which for generations has sent workers into rural homes to help people learn do-it-yourself skills for everything from farming with machinery to making jelly.

“The thing that was great about the extension service, it was a powerful force in our lives, but they didn’t do anything for us. They taught us to do things for ourselves,” Barbour said.

“And that’s my vision of the resource and referral service,” he said. “We want to teach little children’s parents how to do things for themselves and for their children.”

Barbour said the cooperative extension service has always been a “smallish, not very expensive, travel-light, volunteer-intensive program,” and he has the same vision for a child care resource and referral system.

The governor also told an audience of about 50 child care providers and educators at the Mississippi Telecommunications Center that he wants to see more educational content in the federally funded Head Start program, which helps children from low-income families.

Barbour, a Republican, is expected to seek a second term next year, and lawmakers already are saying education funding will be among the top issues during the election-year session that starts in January.

“I don’t see us in Mississippi having a statewide, 4-year-old, state-funded pre-kindergarten program anytime in the near future. We can’t afford … $7,800 per child for a 14th grade,” Barbour said, citing the combined federal, state and local spending figure per pupil for kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools in the state.

Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said he supports Barbour’s idea for a program to help parents of young children.

“Money is always an issue,” Chaney said.

State officials already are working on the budget for the year that starts next July 1. Barbour will unveil his spending plan in mid-November. The $1 million for the child care resource and referral system, while representing a proposal for new spending, is tiny compared to the overall state budget. The state Department of Education is requesting $2.66 billion for the coming year, a $326 million increase over the current year.

Mississippi struggles with about a 35-40 percent high school dropout rate and some of the lowest standardized test scores in the country. Policy makers for years have talked about finding ways to make sure children start kindergarten ready to learn.

In the late 1980s, for example, Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus’ BEST program — Better Education for Success Tomorrow — included proposals to help prepare young children with basic literacy skills. The program was not funded.

Mississippi was one of seven states that received money from the National Governors Association to hold a summit on early childhood issues this year. The others are Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina and Washington.

Lora Maderos, director of the Hancock County Human Resources Agency, said she attended the Mississippi summit to pick up ideas on “how to stretch the dollars more to provide more care.”

She said a center her agency runs now cares for 50 children and has 150 on its waiting list. When the center moves into a new facility in February, it will be able to care for 124 children, Maderos said.