JACKSON — A group of preschool operators is adding to the push for state funding to educate four-year-olds.
Members of the Mississippi Early Childhood Association said at a rally yesterday at the state Capitol that they support House and Senate proposals to use state money to pay for such classes.
“The time is now to invest in Mississippi’s economic future,” said Jeffrey Leffler, the association’s president and head of a child care center at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The members say that private child care operators who have been critical of some parts of the proposal don’t speak for them.
The House and Senate education committees have endorsed separate, though similar measures, and the differences need to be worked out before the plans can go to Gov. Phil Bryant for his consideration.
One main difference is that the Senate bill contains $6 million to pay for classes the first year, while the House bill contains no funding provision. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who sponsored Senate Bill 2395, said he’s confident that lawmakers can work something out and send a bill to Bryant for his signature.
“It has a lot of momentum and I think the children of Mississippi are the ones who are going to benefit from this,” Wiggins said.
Some conservative groups are opposed to the expansion. The Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a consistent opponent of state child care spending, warns that Mississippi will create more dependency on government, likening today to the 1960s, when the federal government expanded anti-poverty programs.
“We know there are parents who do too little to prepare their children for life,” Forest Thigpen, the president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said in a statement earlier this month. “However, every time the government takes on a role best suited for the family, it undermines the principle even further that the family is the building block of society and parents are responsible for raising their children. It furthers the notion that government is our savior, the solver of all problems.”
The Mississippi Tea Party also opposes the plan, saying preschool could “damage” young children and “turn children off to schooling later on.”
“Preschoolers need to be given every opportunity to stay home with – and learn from – mom and dad,” the Mississippi Tea Party said in a statement earlier this month. “Parents who choose pre-K for their children should do so freely and be free to select any provider they prefer. But parents who choose otherwise shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the decisions of other families.”
Wiggins, though, takes issue with the 1960 argument, saying opponents want to keep Mississippi stuck in the past and deny that the vast majority of 4-year-olds already spend their day outside the home.
“How long do we have to continue to be in 1960?” Wiggins asked. “The statistics are that 85 percent of the children in Mississippi are in some kind of child care program.”
Both bills call for local groups to set up consortiums between public schools, Head Start programs, private child care centers and nonprofit groups. The groups would apply for grants, matching them with local money.
Mississippi is the only state in the South and one of only 11 nationwide with no state-funded preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Lawmakers at least twice have put a preschool program into law, dating as far back as 1990, but have never funded it.