Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning

The University of Mississippi School of Education


New Study Points to Importance of Early Education

A report recently released by the Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child has dramatically revised the estimates of how quickly the baby brain develops new neural connections per second in the first few years of life. The Center previously found the brain makes 700-1,000 neural connections per second and has now revised the number to be 1 million connections per second.

This new finding supports the work of educators who have stressed the importance of positive stimulation for babies from the day they are born in supporting their healthy development. The speed occurs when conditions are optimum: a stable home, good health and nutrition, caring and responsive parents, high quality out-of-home care and a strong support system that lifts up parents and children as important contributors to the development of any community.

It appears the decision makers in Mississippi have let our babies and their families become pawns in their power games as evidenced by the last legislative session. Staggering cuts to the Mississippi Department of Health and Mental Health will impede state health professionals by reducing access to health services to all of us, including babies. A bill that would authorize Medicaid and the Department of Human Services to contract with a third party vendor to vet the eligibility of new beneficiaries and weed out people who were trying to qualify for services with both agencies was passed, with no statistics given on the current amount of funds lost from fraud. The cost for the third party contract is unknown, as well as if the current level of fraud justifies the funding. So, is the cost of the contract worth the “savings” to the state?

Meanwhile, those baby brains are developing (or not).

If this past legislative session is any indication, community support to families and children will be critical in attempting to close the gap in child well-being services and education now that multiple tax cuts will be enacted in 2018. According to the Clarion-Ledger, a report from the Legislative Budget Office indicates the impact of about half of the tax cuts passed is unknown. It is known that the development of the early months and years in a child’s life is critical for later school success and adult productivity. But, to grow a strong economy 20 years from now by investing in Mississippians involves decisions our elected officials in Jackson apparently are unwilling to make.

Meanwhile, baby brains are developing (or not).

Soon we will fund a special legislative session since all of the business of the state was not finished on time. This probably means more money flowing from the future advancement of the state to continuing the arguments of today. When a Nobel prize winning economist like Dr. James Heckman repeatedly states the best investment with the greatest return is early childhood education—especially in the care and development of babies—you would think someone in this state who maintains economic development is the solution to our problems would listen.

Wouldn’t you?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Paying for School Choice by Repealing ESEA (Title I) is a Bad Idea in Mississippi

In January, House Bill 610 (HR 610) or  the ‘‘Choices in Education Act of 2017’’ was introduced in the U.S. Congress which, if passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, would repeal The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.). The ESEA was recently amended and renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed into law in 2015.

In a nut shell, this means the funds, which have been used since 1965 to serve low-income students and to provide federal grants for textbooks and library books, funding for special education centers and scholarships for low-income college students will be distributed for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for parents of students to choose where they wish their child to be educated. The bill also would repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools. As this proposed law currently stands, there is no mention of educational services to children with special needs.

The ESEA is the primary source of federal aid to K-12 education. Title I-A is the largest program in the ESSA, funded at $14.9 billion for FY2016. It is designed to provide supplementary educational and related services to students attending p-12 schools with relatively high concentrations of students from low-income families. For states to receive the allocation of ESSA funding, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Education based on student eligibility, each state must submit a plan detailing how funds will be spent and then, upon approval, funds will be disbursed. HR 610 will change the funding formula as well as the process for states to receive funds. This new bill only defines how funding will be determined and offers no accountability requirement for what the funding will yield.

In states such as Mississippi, school choice may not be the answer for all children in every community to get the education their parents seek.  For example, children whose parents wish for them to attend another school located 50 miles away may have the responsibility of transporting their child to their school of choice. According to HR 610, the plan submitted by the state to receive the re-purposed ESSA funding will provide for children ages 5-17 to attend any type of school, including home school. However, there is no statement related to accountability of schools “of choice,” including home schools, for a standard related to student outcome.

For parents who choose for their children to attend a private school, they will receive a voucher to offset their personal cost and, “The amount of any payment under this section shall not be treated as income of the child or his or her parents for purposes of Federal tax laws or for determining eligibility for any other Federal program.” (Lines 20-24) There is no mention of students meeting learning standards as set by the state.

In Mississippi, we have clusters of counties where the local tax base is low and school funding is dependent in large measure on state allocations. The Federal share in education often makes the difference in the quality and type of educational services provided even though it is relatively small in comparison to local and state funds required for schools to operate. If ESSA funds are removed on a per child basis from one district to another when parents choose to relocate their child, what will happen to the quality of education for the children whose parents are unable or unwilling to move their child?

Will the additional funding “schools of choice” receive as new children enroll actually meet the costs of providing the sought after educational opportunities? Or, will it weaken the overall educational program at the “choice” schools since funding may not be enough to cover additional faculty or course offerings?

We know that ESEA, and now ESSA funds have made the difference in children’s success in meeting the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. They have done this by allowing school districts to employ additional literacy coaches, reducing class sizes and providing pre-k classes.

Since our state leaders are having great difficulty determining how to develop a state funding formula for our schools, what kind of mess would our children be in if HR 610 (or something akin) is passes?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

We Will Never Overcome Economic Challenges Without Pre-K Investment

Questions surrounding funding for public education in Mississippi have been widely discussed and reported. Community based financial support for state-funded, pre-k programs is worth a second look. According to SB 2395, The Early Learning Collaborative Act allows for a state tax credit to be provided to any person or business who makes a monetary donation to a collaborative.

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) recently reported individuals or corporations donated about $1.6 million to the 10 early learning collaboratives in 2016, providing state-funded early childhood education programs with additional support for student learning. Given the donations in 2014 and 2015 that totaled almost 1.1 million, the combined donations total 2.7 million since the program’s beginning. This is a strong indicator that citizens understand the importance of quality early childhood education and are willing to financially  invest in it.

A report issued by MDE indicates it is a worthwhile investment since the 2016 kindergarten entrance scores of children attending state funded pre-k programs averaged 529.5 with the target score of 530 indicating the child is a late emergent reader.

With all the discussion about K-12 funding, the talk of increasing pre-k funding has been absent. Pre-k should be one of the first in line for an increase when the focus of legislators seems to be on cutting programs that are not effective.

The passing literacy test score to enter fourth grade will increase in 2018 and because of this, the success of pre-k programs in reading skills must not be ignored. As school districts are forced to make decisions on budgets, additional state funds should be made available for additional classrooms to ensure more children are given access to a high quality pre-k program and a greater chance to be kindergarten ready.

Early childhood educators are advocating for additional, high-quality programs because they yield positive student outcomes. Parents are advocating for more opportunities for their children to attend a state-funded pre-k program and donors across the state are expecting state funding to be expanded since they have taken steps to increase workforce productivity by donating their own funds. Now, all eyes are on those elected to show forward thinking and increase current state funding.

The program works, communities and schools are eager to participate and the legislature, Lt. Governor and Governor have a role in making it happen. Time is ticking, will those elected to represent the people follow their lead?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

Will little children win or lose in the 2017 legislative session?

As we recover from a historic, national political campaign, we are entering into a state-level political exercise that promises to be almost as rambunctious. This time, the debate will not be about which candidates are best suited for elected offices, but which group of Mississippians will come out as winners and losers as the results of budget decisions legislators will make.

If history is an indicator, young children will be lucky to hold on to the dollars currently appropriated for pre-K programs. One neighboring state has discovered the wisdom of investing in quality early childhood education, according to a report recently released by The First Five Year Fund (FFYF). According to FFYF, Louisiana has made a significant investment in early childhood education programs through school readiness tax credits. These tax credits have helped to both grow the number and expand the reach of a network of early childhood education providers throughout the state. In 2015, the Committee for Economic Development conducted a study which found that for every dollar spent on ECE, the return is $1.78 into the local economy. Statewide, the ECE sector generates more than $800 million in direct and indirect economic activity. (more…)

Investing in Pre-K is a Major Weapon to Combat the Achievement Gap

Recently, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) announced a significant achievement gap between subgroups of students in schools across the state. The gaps followed racial and income lines. Statewide, African-American students are running 29 percentage points behind white students in academic proficiency and poor students lagging richer ones by 27 points.

These figures confirm the need for more funding for early childhood education. Research findings have been published for years that clearly show poverty negatively impacts student achievement and even the formation of the brain, with children in generational poverty having less gray matter than those not living in low income settings.  A report from the Southern Educational Foundation quotes data released from the National Center for Education Statistics on children in public schools in 2013 revealing that Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate of ­71 percent. Almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi were low-income, whereas the national average was 51 percent.

Given the percentage of low-income children in our schools, a point could be made that our public schools have done amazing work. The real gap is in state funding for high-quality early childhood education programs for low-income children. With only a $4 million dollar appropriation for state funded pre-K, the investment is negligible considering that it supports only 79 classrooms.


According to MDE there are 225 classrooms in public schools funded through other sources such as Title I, tuition, federal funds for children with special needs, private donations, Head Start blended programs or a combination of some of the funding steams listed. As of 2016, these 300 total classrooms and any additional ones housed in a public school or participating in a state funded collaborative, will be held to a standard of accountability which meets national standards in how funds are spent and the quality of the instruction provided.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 61 percent of Mississippi’s young children in 2014 were living in poverty. With an average of 38,000 4-year-olds in the state during any given year, 300 pre-kindergarten classrooms housed in public schools serving a maximum of 20 children per classroom does not provide the obvious need for high-quality program options for low income families.

According to The Head Start Bureau, in 2014 Head Start in Mississippi served 26,276 3- and 4-year old children. Head Start does require programs meet standards addressing quality programming for continued funding, but the numbers eligible for enrollment and the funds available for the federal approbation leave a gap in opportunity for many children.

When 61 percent of 38,000 4-year-old children is computed, the figure is 23,180 children, who, on average, need to receive at least one year of a high-quality early childhood education to reduce their lack of kindergarten readiness skills as measured by a state kindergarten readiness assessment.

Our state has avoided the fact that for our achievement gap to close, we must address the obvious and significantly increase funding for high-quality early childhood programs. If research is to be believed, within three years, the gaps in achievement will decrease significantly among those who participate in the high quality programs. How can you ignore that?

By Dr. Cathy Grace

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New report released shows early brain development greater than formerly believed: