A teacher in Leland gets her pre-K student to recite her months of the year as she points to them. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Mississippi’s state-funded pre-kindergarten program has again received high marks in a national report that measures the quality of state-funded education for 3- and 4-year-olds nationally.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) identified Mississippi as one of only six states in the nation whose pre-K program meets all 10 quality standards for early childhood education.

But despite the program’s high quality, access remains an issue: It currently only serves 8% of 4-year-olds in the state.

Mississippi’s state-funded pre-K is also referred to as Early Learning Collaborative programs, which are partnerships among school districts, Head Start agencies, childcare centers and nonprofit groups. There are currently 18 collaboratives serving more than 3,000 children across the state.

The Mississippi Legislature recently doubled the state’s funding for the program from about $8 million to $16 million, but according to NIEER, more funding is still needed.

“Mississippi sets an example of policies to support high quality preschool, but funding is too low to allow programs to implement those policies well,” said Steven Barnett, NIEER’s founder and senior co-director. “Increased funding is needed to ensure quality and expand access to more children who can benefit from the program.”

Mississippi ranks 39th in the nation for pre-K access for 4-year-olds and 42nd in state spending per child at about $2,187 per child in the 2019-2020 school year.

The Early Learning Collaboratives Act of 2013 established the first state-funded, voluntary pre-K program. It provides funding to local communities to create, support and expand quality early childhood education and development services. The Legislature has increased funding over the years.

“This success is through both design via our strong pre-K law as well as hard work on the part of the pre-K programs. When NIEER upgraded their benchmarks in 2017, Mississippi again strove to meet higher standards,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit that wrote Mississippi’s law. “With the passage and signature of House Bill 1123 in the 2021 session, these higher standards are again enshrined in our law to ensure quality for years to come.” 

Sen. Brice Wiggins, a supporter of the law since its creation in 2013, said he is thrilled the state continues to be a leader in early education. 

“…the 2013 ELC law wrote these benchmarks into the law and Mississippi has been at the top nationally ever since,” he said, noting the benchmarks were updated in addition to the increased funding this year thanks to the support of the education committee chairmen and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.

“Thinking back to 2013, there were those, some from my own party, who did not believe in what we were doing,” said Wiggins, a Republican. “But, in bi-partisan fashion, the legislature came together and passed it; the nation has been looking up at us ever since. We cannot rest on our laurels and I for one will continue to fight for our children’s success.” 

READ MORE: How public education fared during the 2021 legislative session

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.