The Mississippi Senate could be expanding the scope and cost of the state’s taxpayer-funded prekindergarten program after holding a hearing on the topic Wednesday.

Senate Bill 2286, sponsored by Sens. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) and Dennis DeBar (R-Leakesville), would expand the program to 25 percent of the state’s 4-year-old children by the 2022-2023 school year.

The bill would also increase the amount spent per student from $2,150 per student for a full-day program and $1,075 for a half-day one under present legislation to $2,500 and $1,125 respectively.

The bill would also have some reporting requirements on the program’s effectiveness. Since the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, state Sen. DeBar, is a co-sponsor, the bill likely faces few obstacles in a path to the Senate floor for a vote.

Whether Mississippi taxpayers are getting a solid return on their tax dollars with the state’s existing prekindergarten program is debatable. A report by the state’s PEER Committee (Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review) says there isn’t enough evidence to conclude whether pre-K programs provide a positive impact. It also questioned the curriculum used by the program on whether it had been properly compared against other similar curricula. 

At a hearing Wednesday, prekindergarten advocates told legislators that the program needs to be expanded, both in scope and in cost to taxpayers.

Wendy Bracy is the superintendent of the Marion County School District. She told legislators that her district’s enrollment has increased because of the experience of parents with their children in the early learning collaborative program. The program was approved by the state Board of Education in 2018.

She also said that student outcomes in her district are also improving. Marion County schools were graded as B-rated district in the 2019 accountability grades, up from a C rating in 2018.

“State funding falls short of what these collaboratives really need,” said Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First. “What we do at this age can have life-long effects. Those with quality early learning, studies show, are far less likely to end up in the criminal justice system.” 

What wasn’t mentioned was the phenomena of fade out, where the advantages of early learning slowly dissipate as a prekindergarten student is promoted to higher grades. A 2019 study of Tennessee’s program found that short-term, positive effects on early learners diminished by the time students reach the third grade. 

The study said one likely factor for the fade out of former prekindergarten students had to do with the quality of schools, but it shows that prekindergarten isn’t a panacea for overcoming a poor quality elementary school education. 

There’s also another bill in the legislature that would expand prekindergarten. House Bill 168 would create a voluntary, universal prekindergarten program in the state. Since it is authored by a Democrat, state Rep. Bryant Clark, its passage is unlikely in the Republican-dominated House.

The Mississippi Department of Education has asked for an increase of $3.2 million over last year’s appropriation of $6.7 million for the prekindergarten program in fiscal 2021, which starts July 1. 

The state’s prekindergarten program was created in 2013 and taxpayers have spent more than $22 million on it since. The Mississippi Department of Education runs the program and 14 early learning collaboratives (a district or countywide council that submits an application that involves a public school district) and the program serves about 2,200 students.

MDE is prohibited from reserving more than 5 percent of the appropriation for administrative costs and the funds allocated can be carried over the next fiscal year if they’re not completely exhausted.

Collaboratives must match state funds on a one to one basis and those can include local tax dollars and federal funds.