Mississippi on familiar turf at the bottom of Kids Count

AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD/2014Pre-kindergarten students listen as a lesson is explained to them during class at Central Elementary School in Gulfport in 2014.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD/2014Pre-kindergarten students listen as a lesson is explained to them during class at Central Elementary School in Gulfport in 2014. SUN HERALD

The Mississippi Kids Count profile contains all the usual lowlights:

-- An astounding number of children living in poverty, one reason the state is 49th in the U.S. in economic well-being

-- More than half of young children not in school, which is why its 47th in education

-- Almost half of children in single-

parent families, 50th in family and community.

Mississippi did better across the board in health, with a slight drop in low-birth weight babies and marked improvements in children with health insurance and the rate of child and teen deaths. There also was a slight decline in the percentage of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs, an area that has been improving for years.

It's familiar territory for Mississippi in the rankings produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It has been last in all but one of the 27 years of Kids Count. That was in 2013. And all of Mississippi's neighbors are close by in the rankings as well. Tennessee fairs the best at 38th.

And while researchers found Mississippi improved, other states improved as well, which means Mississippi didn't close the gap. Nationwide, teen birth rates fell 40 percent and the percentage of teens abusing drugs dropped 38. In Mississippi, those percentages were 26 percent and 1 percent respectively.

Early-childhood education is the key to getting the state off the bottom, researchers say.

"The evidence is clear -- states that consistently invest in children's health and education while providing economic opportunities for their families and communities can promote a common good, which makes a positive difference in the well-being of their children," said Linda Southward, director of Mississippi's Kids Count. "An important question to answer is whether Mississippi is willing to make the investments to improve our children's outcomes."

Funding issues

Mississippi hasn't "adequately" funded education according to a formula passed by the Legislature in 1997. On the Coast, several school districts get the maximum allowed by law from local taxpayers. So far South Mississippi schools have been able to make ends meet without drastic cuts.

Kids Count, though, makes the case that the state could be saving money and boosting its economy by putting more money into education.

Mississippi did improve in the percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading from 81 percent to 74 percent since 2008.

Three things happened in 2013. The Legislature passed the third-grade reading gate, which requires students to be proficient before they move to fourth grade. It also put $3 million in grants to school districts, child-care centers and Head Start programs that opened those programs to an additional 1,800 students. And, it passed the Early Learning Collaborative Act.

Trouble is, there are 44,000 third graders in Mississippi, only some of which qualify for Head Start. Working parents, for example, could make too little to afford tuition in private preschools but could earn too much to qualify for Head Start.

Last year, 2,907 students didn't make it through the third-grade reading gate. Southward said it costs $12,401 to retain a student, which costs Mississippi $36 million.

Community involvement

Districts on the Coast are adept at getting the community involved and finding solutions. And test scores and other measures show some of the best schools in the state are in the South.

In 2004, Excel By 5 launched on the Coast with a $650,000 grant from Chevron, which has spread to 38 communities across the state. On the Coast, other businesses have joined in to provide funding.

In 2010, then Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel started the Gulfport Preschool project, which a year later it merged with the Gulf Coast Business Council Master's Project preschool proposal to become the PreK4Ward program. In 2015, United Way of South Mississippi took over funding using two grants from anonymous donors. It now has classes in Gulfport and in Harrison and Hancock counties.

"Clearly there are things that can be done in the community but there are opportunities at the state level to be able to have policies and funding that will adequately support the teachers and children across the state," Southward said. "Smart business leaders look at how a state grows its workforce and we cannot wait until children are in high school to start thinking about this. We have to start much earlier so we give children all the tools and opportunities they need to be successful."