They are both red states with conservative legislatures. But when it comes to investments in pre-K, Mississippi and Oklahoma have taken entirely different approaches. While Oklahoma has invested in universal voluntary preschool to all families that want to enroll their 4-year-olds, Mississippi is one of the few states in the country that doesn't spend a dime on preschool education for its population, not even for the neediest.
A series of articles are shining a spotlight on this contrast. The Hechinger Report has published several articles this fall on early education troubles in Mississippi, while The American Prospect's latest issue gives an inside look at what works in Oklahoma.
In the American Prospect article, "Pre-K on the Range," Sharon Lerner describes how "rural, conservative, impoverished" Oklahoma has managed to pull off universal pre-K, something that eludes many richer states. In fact, as she notes, several seemingly budget-strapped states have found a way to provide a quality early learning program for children before kindergarten: "Even with budgetary challenges," Lerner writes, "Georgia, Arkansas, and West Virginia have all managed to create high-quality pre-kindergarten programs with strong enrollment over the past few years." After enrolling in Oklahoma pre-K, Lerner reports, "children were nine months ahead of their peers with the skills necessary for reading, like recognizing letters and being able to tell stories. They were seven months ahead in pre-writing, including the ability to hold a pencil, and five months ahead in counting and other pre-math skills."
The Hechinger Report stories -- part of a series called "Mississippi Learning," with some pieces published in partnership with TIME Magazine -- paint a more dismal picture. Mississippi has the highest child poverty rate in the country and is the only southern state with no pre-K program. Next year's budget proposed by Gov. Phil Bryant shows no signs of trying to change that. There are a few bright spots in local areas, such as an early childhood center in McComb that patches together funding from private and public sources. But as Sarah Carr, a Hechinger reporter, notes in her story on McComb, progress is still "decentralized and uneven." Though pre-K is not the only reason why, Mississippi students are suffering, with low academic performance compared to students in other states.
No one expects Mississippi to turn into a bastion of progressive education-focused investment any time soon. And no one said statewide, sustainable progress was easy. But maybe it's time for Mississippi's governor and legislators to take a drive up to the conservative Oklahoma heartland to see how it's done.