July 31, 2012 § 6 Comments

This is not a political post, I swear. You who have read this blog for any length of time should be aware that I eschew politics here.

But this is a post about a subject that has reverberated in Mississippi politics for quite some time.

The issue is education, and, specifically, early childhood education, as in pre-k.

TIME magazine on July 27, 2012, published an article online entitled “Mississipi Learning: Why the State’s Students Start Behind — and Stay Behind.” I encourage you to read it.

Some of the article’s major points:

  • Mississippi has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country and test scores that are consistently among the nation’s worst.
  • Neighboring states have made great strides in early education, but Mississippi remains the only state in the South — and just one of 11 in the country — that doesn’t fund any pre-k programs.
  • Researchers have found that high-quality pre-k programs can improve long-term outcomes for low-income children and help close an achievement gap for minorities that tends to worsen over time. Being able to stand in line, listen to directions or make eye contact with the teacher play in an important role when it comes time to try to teach kids how to read and write.
  • Failure to prepare children for kindergarten or first grade costs the state a lot of money. One of every 14 kindergarteners and one of every 15 first-graders in Mississippi repeated the school year in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. From 1999 to 2008, the state spent $383 million on children who had to repeat kindergarten or first grade, according to the Southern Education Foundation. who repeat one or more grades are much more likely than their classmates to drop out of school, decades of research have shown.
  • The state’s academic results, which trail other states’ significantly, don’t improve as the children grow older. In 2011, the state’s fourth-graders were outperformed on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress by their peers in 44 states. In math, they finished second to last in the nation, ahead only of fourth-graders in the District of Columbia.
  • Just 61 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school on time — more than 10 percentage points below the national average.
  • More than 75 percent of young Mississippi residents are ineligible to join the military because, among other reasons, they failed to graduate from high school on time.

Whether to fund early-childhood education in Mississippi is an issue wrapped up in budgetary, educational, political, and socio-economic considerations. Some legislators believe the state can not bear the cost. Some are not persuaded by the data that it would be beneficial. Some are motivated negatively by the political repercussions they believe they would feel back home. A few are motivated by lack of interest in any further funding for public education.

As a chancellor, with Youth Court responsibilities in Clarke County, I see the crippling cycle of poverty and poor education that keeps an underclass trapped in a perpetual dead end. We who are more fortunate tend to look down our noses and sniff that “those people” can lift themselves up by their bootstraps if they will only try. But a child who shows up for the first day of kindergarten not knowing her colors, or his street address, or his letters, or how to interact in a disciplined fashion with other children, has miles to go before ever reaching the starting line. And quite often those children come from homes in which there is a heritage of generation after generation in the same circumstances.

The results I see in my court include chronic unemployment and underemployment, malnourished and neglected children, reliance on costly government programs that often have dubious success, inability to pay child support, rampant teen pregnancy and the resulting reliance on the dole, school dropouts, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, shattered family structure, subhuman living conditions, and on and on in a panoply of human misery. As chancellor charged with the responsibility as superior guardian of children and incompetents, I can not overlook what I see.

I am not saying that throwing more money at this problem would fix it. I am saying that the overwhelming evidence from other states is that early childhood education pays dividends. Until we get moving, we will fall further and further behind.

A society is only as strong as its weakest members. When we reach out and give a hand up, we all benefit.

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