Studies from some organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, have found such government pre-K expansion programs to have little evidence of a large positive impact when children enter kindergarten. But many have persisted with the idea that the government is the best-equipped party to direct people’s lives at the earliest age possible.
Pre-K expansion is on the horizon in Mississippi as well. On December 10, 2020, the University of Mississippi Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction and Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading offered a virtual, statewide viewing of a new documentary called, Starting at Zero.
This documentary focuses on the potential effectiveness of early, state-controlled pre-K programs. In addition, it entertains the question of whether there is a worthwhile return on investment on children participating in Head Start programs as early as possible, even “starting at zero.” This is a film that advocates for state-priorities to be in the lives of children from birth, featuring left-leaning leaders from across the country such as Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam.
Unfortunately, the documentary also includes leaders with conservative reputations. But just because a strong conservative leader supports a policy, it does not always mean that the policy itself is conservative.
In early 2020, the Mississippi Legislature PEER Committee issued a report that found that the state’s pre-K programs had little positive effect on the ultimate learning outcomes of children after pre-K. Despite these findings, former Governor Phil Bryant voiced his support in the documentary for this program of government involvement in children’s lives that starts at the earliest possible age.
Following the documentary showing, Ole Miss held a panel entertaining the merits of the documentary for Mississippi's education policy. On the panel were various state leaders and representatives of this movement to expand government oversight starting at birth: Willa Kammerer, the director of Starting at Zero; Tonya Ware, project director of ReadyNation in Mississippi; Rachel Canter, Executive Director of Mississippi First; Dr. Carey Wright, State Superintendent of Education in Mississippi; Jason Dean, chairman of the Mississippi Board of Education; Nita Thompson, Executive Director of the Mississippi Head Start Association; and Holly Spivey, Head Start Collaboration Director and Education Policy Advisor for Governor Tate Reeves.
The primary focus of the discussion centered around the potential return on investment early childhood programming gives to the economic infrastructure of the State of Mississippi. However, the means of this return appear not to be sufficient through means of private childcare.
Instead, the panelists advocated State-sanctioned and State-funded child programming. This theme is revisited throughout the event as the panelists suggest that it is necessary for the government to partner with families and take an active role in the child-rearing process.
The panel exhibited significant interest in pursuing child education and oversight at even earlier ages. In the December 2020 meeting, Dr. Carey Wright commented that $7.8 million has already been applied to these early learning programs through grants and government funding.
That amount has since more than doubled to $16 million. Wright called for the State to prioritize and give more funding to MDE to use in these programs. She further noted that the goal for the Mississippi Board of Education is to ensure that every child has access to early childhood programming.
Dr. Jason Dean suggested that such programs offer the perfect opportunity for the State to teach young children the “soft skills” needed for acceptable social interaction. He further contended that the State must break down the walls between economic, academic, and social issues and start treating these aspects of child development as really different sides of the same coin. “I think we all agree on the policy. I think we need to come up with the plan, especially a funding plan,” Dean said.
Holly Spivey and Nita Thompson commented about their desired picture for those children from birth to 3 years of age. Thompson mentioned the desire for every element and level of child education to work towards the same goal(this goal was left somewhat ambiguous). She additionally equates this issue not only as an economic matter but as a healthcare matter as well, making sure that there is government-funded healthcare for all children to participate in this education programming and meet government healthcare priorities as well.
Despite Governor Reeves’ conservative stance on most policy issues, Spivey indicated that Reeves has a strong interest in expanding government’s involvement in the lives of children at an earlier age, based on her knowledge as his education policy advisor.
State leaders have exhibited interest and support for these kinds of policies to expand government oversight into the lives of young children, even by mandatory force in some cases. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if traditional values will be overridden by the novel concept of starting pre-K at age zero.
The Ole Miss panel meeting can be viewed at the following link: https://youtu.be/2K1WZ5AgMu8