Older readers may remember a time when education began at age 6 with the first grade.
Even today, only 17 states require 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten. Mississippi is not among that group, although the state requires all public schools to provide full-day kindergarten.
Given that, it should be no surprise that Mississippi’s response to pre-K education has lagged.
In 1967, the federal government established Head Start, which provided early education for low-income children, but the demand for the program far exceeds the budget. In Mississippi, the state legislature started its own taxpayer-funded pre-K program in 2013 called the Early Learning Collaborative, but only recently has the state started making a serious investment in the program. In both the 2021 and 2022 sessions, the legislature increased funding for the program by $8 million. As a result, one quarter of Mississippi 4-year-olds have access to no-cost pre-K.
In Mississippi, the “head start” pre-K provides has been more like a “slow start” in a state that has chronically underfunded public education.
Even so, there is a real momentum growing for pre-K access. Awareness of the impact of early education programs has grown with study after study noting that kids in early learning programs not only outperform those who don’t, but see the benefits well into adulthood. Pre-K kids are more likely to graduate high school, less prone to teen pregnancy, less likely to become involved in criminal behavior and have a higher standard of living as an adult.
As the state increases funding for pre-K, some school districts have made it a higher priority than others.
The Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District is among those districts who are continuing to build on their pre-K program to make it more widely available, especially for low income students who cannot afford tuition for private pre-K programs.
This week, the SOCSD Board of Trustees approved an expansion of its Early Learning Collaborative Program by opening another ELC class to accommodate an additional 20 4-year-olds at Sudduth Elementary. The district will have 13 ELC classrooms when the new school year begins in the fall. Between the federal Head Start, the tuition-funded ELC at Emerson School and this expansion of no-cost ELCs at Sudduth and West, the district has 260 children enrolled in pre-K.
That’s a significant local commitment, which should be applauded, especially considering just 25 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in a pre-K program.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.