One Of These States Is Not Like The Others ...

Blog Post
April 14, 2008

Georgia was the first state in the country to introduce universal pre-k.

Oklahoma has the highest percentage (68 percent) of four-year-olds in state pre-k programs.

Alabama pre-k programs met all 10 quality benchmarks in the 2007 NIEER assessment.

Mississippi has no pre-k program.

Not sure what we mean? Here's Cookie Monster:

Answer: Mississippi. Southern states have been leaders in providing state support for quality pre-k programs, but Mississippi is the only state in region that does not have a publicly-financed pre-k program.

But if any state needs pre-k (and they all do), it's Mississippi. Research shows that children living in poverty are already at an academic disadvantage when they begin kindergarten. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation, with more than half of children living more than 200% below the poverty line. A study of Reading First schools in the state found that many entering kindergarteners had the vocabulary of a one-year old child. One in ten Mississippi first graders was held back in 2006. Pre-k can help close this school readiness gap.

So why is Mississippi lagging on pre-k?

First, the few early ed initiatives that reached the state legislature lacked consistent political backing. The first significant move came in October 2006, when Gov. Haley Barbour (R) convened a state Early Childhood Summit to identify strategies to improve education for children aged 0-5. In 2007, the state enacted a modest "early care and education grant program" to help low-income families pay for childcare, as well as legislation to create a childcare referral program and a quality rating and incentive program. But Mississippi has never funded any of these programs.

Second, Gov. Barbour and other leaders have favored increased coordination among existing childcare programs over creating a new state-funded pre-k program. Improving childcare coordination has its benefits, but having a state pre-k program would ensure that all students are able to attend pre-k, in classrooms with uniform quality standards and dedicated state funding.

This year is looking brighter for pre-k in Mississippi ... maybe. The state legislature is considering proposals to start pilot pre-k programs and create a task force to examine the potential of universal pre-k. Yet these initiatives have already experienced setbacks in committee. Lieutenant Governor-elect Phil Bryant has also hinted that pre-k is not a budget priority and may not get funding.

Around the country, states without pre-k programs are taking steps to catch-up with their neighbors. Mississippi should follow the example of its neighbors—it's got some of the best pre-k policy models in the country right next door.