Mississippi Explores Alternatives to Publicly-Funded Pre-K

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research "The State of Preschool 2011 Yearbook" report released earlier this week, Mississippi doesn't provide funding for any pre-K programs. The state, one of only eleven, hasn't paid for a traditional per-school classes, but as of last year, it instead created an innovative program that encourages private business to "sponsor" private childcare centers. The centers, known as Mississippi Building Blocks can draw on companies recourses for training, funding and even scholarship for staff to improve their teaching skills.

Mississippi Building Blocks provides participating centers with a variety of resources to assist them in meeting program outcomes. Program facilitators helped to recruit centers to participate and provide assistance in accessing trainings and meeting professional development requirements. Participating centers receive classroom materials and resources based on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-R (ECERS-R) and the Infant Toddler Environment Rating Scale – R (ITERS-R) and assistance from business providers on best practices in financial management.

Currently, about 100 centers across the state participate on the program.

The Building Blocks initiative launched as a three-year pilot program in 2008, with $4.8 million commitment from businesses across the sate.

 The initiative [was] designed to improve teaching and learning in licensed child care centers, strengthen parenting skills, improve school readiness for children entering kindergarten, and increase the number of centers participating in Mississippi's quality rating and improvement system, Mississippi Child Care Quality Step System.

The initial effort covered approximately 50 centers and served 1,500 students.

Nancy Loom, who is the executive director of The parents' Campaign, which lobbies the state government for expansion of publicly-funded early childhood education, has said that the Mississippi should adopt a similar program for government-supported pre-K schools.

Loome said her organization favors a collaborative program among existing childcare centers, school districts and the state aimed at putting more qualified teachers in classrooms instead of a competitive grant program.

She is not optimistic about the chances of her plan being adopted in the near future. The latest legislative attempt died in committee, and there are no plans to revive it. Loome has said that, in general, both lawmakers and Mississippi voters favor a publicly funded system, but at the moment the biggest stumbling block is the state's precarious fiscal health.

"A majority of the legislators agree we need to address pre-k," she said. But "there's a lot of debate about how to make that happen."

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