Mississippi met the majority of new quality pre-K standards last year, according an annual report on the state of preschool in the United States released this week.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) report, which examines each state’s pre-K progress and how the states compare with each other, found that states are making small steps forward in some areas but taking a step back in others.

“Overall, this year we’ve seen modest progress in enrollment spending over last year, and looking over the entire 15 years we’ve conducted the study, we see more change, but still modest change if you look at it year by year,” said Dr. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of NIEER and co-author of the report, in a conference call on Tuesday.

The 15th edition of this 190 page report detailed the growth and disparities in high quality state-funded pre-K through tracking the access, resources and quality from state to state. The report focuses on 10 new key benchmarks for state quality standards that showed more programs this year met the benchmarks, although all states haven’t.

Barnett noted that Alabama, Rhode Island and Michigan met the 10 quality benchmarks while expanding their enrollment. He went on to say that there are eight states that include a high number of poverty stricken children who meet fewer than five of the 10 benchmarks.

Mississippi met all 10 of the current benchmark standards and met nine of the new standards. The only benchmark the state missed was having 15 hours of individual professional development and coaching for teachers and assistants.

“Many children who need it most don’t have access to high quality … and that quality can be distributed very unequally within a state,” added Barnett.

During fiscal year 2016-2017, enrollment increased and growth decreased in state-funded pre-K. More money was invested in the programs, but state spending per child declined for the first time since 2014, stated the report.

In Mississippi, three percent of four-year-olds were enrolled in 2017 in comparison to four percent in 2016. In 2017, the amount of funds spent per child increased to $2,436 whereas it was $1,805 in 2016. Only 10 percent of school districts in the state offer pre-K programs.

Mississippi ranked No. 41 in access to four-year-olds, No. 27 in access to three-year-olds and No. 41 in state spending in contrast to other states.

There are a few new additions to this year’s report, said Barnett, such as including a section on dual language learners and how state policies support them. Twenty three  percent of preschool age children are dual language learners nationwide, and out of 60 state-funded pre-K programs, only six require lead teachers to have training to work with those kids, said Barnett.

“Everyone has a stake in high quality pre-K because today’s children really are our future in science, the arts, in business, the strength of our military, the quality of our life in towns and cities, but when pre-K access and quality varies where we live, so does our future and the future of our children,” he said.

“We hope that our report will lead the public and media to ask questions, to hold elected officials accountable – not just for their promises but for making access to high quality pre-K in every community a reality.”

The report can be found here.

Since stepping into Mississippi’s state superintendent role in 2013, Carey Wright has repeatedly noted that she is a staunch proponent of early learning programs. Wright is also the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013 established Mississippi’s program, which provides funding to local communities to create and support quality early childhood education and development services. In the first three years of the program, the Mississippi Legislature provided $3 million and increased that figure to $4 million in 2016. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation also provided the Mississippi Department of Education with a $6 million grant to help with early childhood learning.

The program funded 10 collaboratives last school year, comprised of 51 sites that served 1,645 students. For the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislature has appropriated $6.5 million.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.