Supporters attend a Head Start rally on Tuesday outside the state Capitol. 

Head Start advocates gathered outside the Capitol Tuesday to praise the federal program’s role in Mississippi, and some lawmakers used the event as a campaign opportunity.

Head Start is a federal program that launched in 1965 for children from low-income families. The program serves children from birth to age five and focuses on language, literacy and social and emotional development, according to the federal program’s description.

At a press conference Tuesday, at least 20 Democratic legislators took to the podium to express their support for Head Start, which they said sets Mississippi children up for a lifetime of success.

“For more than half a century, Head Start has been a vital part of the early childhood landscape in Mississippi, preparing children and strengthening families,”  Mississippi Head Start Association Executive Director Nita Norphlet-Thompson said in a release. “Statewide research proves that Head Start is helping children in Mississippi make significant gains in language development, literacy, physical development, and math skills.”

Mississippi Head Start currently serves about 25,000 children and also operates sub-programs to help parents by providing job training and childcare. Nationally, President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed a slight increase in funding for Head Start but would do away with Preschool Development Grants, which many states use to expand preschool programs. The state provides no additional funding for Head Start beyond what comes through federal dollars.

A few legislators used their time at the press conference to remind the crowd of their candidacy in the Mississippi congressional races.

State Rep. Omeria Scott is running in the race for incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s seat, and told the crowd Mississippi needs a “real voice” in the Senate who understands their needs.

“You are a federal program, so you need someone at the federal level who is going to be articulating the need of Head Start and all early education in the poorest state in the union,” the Democrat from Laurel said. “You know better than all of us that your monies come from Washington, so you need a new messenger in Washington. Someone who is going to speak for your program, who is not going to vote to cut this program that is proven.”

Rep. Michael Evans, D-Preston, is running for a seat left open by Rep. Gregg Harper’s retirement later this year. Evans told the crowd “I guarantee you if I make it to Washington in November I’ll be a firm supporter of Head Start.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.