State funding for pre-K education exists, has since 2013

Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) sponsored Senate Bill 2395, or the “Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013.”
Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) sponsored Senate Bill 2395, or the “Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013.”

There is state funding for pre-K education, but not as many people know about it as legislators would like.

That’s the message of state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who took issue with a recent Sun Herald article that said Mississippi is one of 10 states without pre-K funding.

Wiggins and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, sponsored Senate Bill 2395. The bill, also known as the “Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013,” was signed into law in 2013. It’s the first time the state has allocated funding for pre-K education.

“Not as many people as we would like know about it,” Wiggins said.

That includes several area superintendents who recently said there’s no state pre-K funding available.

Wiggins is one of 25 legislators nationwide who are fellows in the National Counsel of State Legislators “Early Learning Fellows Program.” The program “is designed to support legislators and legislative staff who are experienced or emerging leaders on early childhood and early learning issues,” according to its website.

The bill “provides funding to local communities to establish, expand and support successful early childhood education and development services.”

It is based on a white paper that examines the collaborative model provided by Mississippi First — a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that specializes in education policy research and advocacy. More information on the bill can be found on its website.

The National Institute for Early Education Research lauded the collaborative act for meeting 10 quality standards for early-childhood education, which puts Mississippi among only five states in the nation that meet all 10 benchmarks.

The NIEER report presents data on the status of pre-K programs nationally as well as breakdowns of each state’s progress in providing high-quality pre-K services.

Wiggins said he drafted the bill, which resulted from his experience working with Excel By 5 in Pascagoula. Barker handled the bill in the House.

The bill provided $3 million in pre-K funding in its first year. This year, the Legislature added $1 million to its coffers.

The collaborative idea comes from similar programs that have been found to be effective in Oklahoma and Georgia. Georgia’s pre-K program, established in 1993, became the nation’s first state-funded universal preschool program for 4-year-olds in 1995.

To get the funding, private child-care centers and public school district officials are encouraged to work together. The state matches whatever money is put into the collaborative, offering tax credits to those who enter the agreement.

That’s one of the sticking points, however, Wiggins said.

“It can be difficult getting private centers to assist with public entities, and vice versa. Some of the private day cares see it as stepping on their toes. On the public side, you have some educators believing it takes more money from them,” he said.

“But we believe, and that includes the lieutenant governor, it’s a step in the right direction. We understand the importance of early-childhood education. We know it’s one step at raising student standards in the long run. It’s still in its infancy, but we believe it will benefit Mississippi schools.”

Centers must have a nationally recognized, evidence-based curriculum.

“We wanted to make sure that whoever gets involved, whether it’s private churches or Head Start, we want to ensure a high quality of instruction,” Wiggins said.

He said one reason not much attention has been given to the pre-K funding is that following the Initiative 42 debate last year over education funding, funding of any kind has been used as a political football.

“Last year’s debate over Initiative 42 took it to a whole other level. The only thing that was focused on was the Mississippi Adequate Education Formula, even though many other education items have always been funded outside the formula — for example, board-certified teachers.

“I think more know about this then maybe they are letting on, but the funding debate has become political,” he said.

He pointed to the Petal School District, one of 11 in the state that have established a collaborative. The state matched $50,000 in funding in the district, he said.

Wiggins said the bill reflected one of the rare moments of bipartisanship in the Legislature.

“We came together for this. You can’t say that about a lot of bills lately,” he said. “This was a success, in my opinion. The problem is not that many people know about it,” he said.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory