Legislative Champions Key to Mississippi Pre-K Victories

The story of the 2018 state-funded pre-K expansion in Mississippi is a tale of playing the long game.

For years, early childhood advocates pushed the legislature to think about the impact high-quality early education could have on Mississippi’s K-12 education system, but they were unable to convince the legislature to pass a bill. By 2012, Mississippi was one of only 11 states without a state-funded pre-K program.

Everything changed in 2013 when Mississippi passed the Early Learning Collaborative Act, which established state-funded pre-K that met all 10 of the quality benchmarks tracked by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Just as importantly, the legislature appropriated $3 million for the program. Since then, despite ever-increasing strains on the state budget, the Mississippi legislature has expanded the pre-K program twice more, increasing the program to $4M in 2016 and to $6.5M in 2018.

Mississippi First’s role in this turnaround started with a piece of advice I got in 2008. While on a listening and learning tour, I met with a long-time legislator and asked him a complicated question, “How do we pass big legislation?”

His answer was surprisingly simple, “Find a legislative champion.”

That answer stuck with me as Mississippi First worked to develop a realistic proposal for pre-K in Mississippi. In 2012, we published Leaving Last in Line, which established the framework that became the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013. The issue brief solved several of the problems facing the advocacy community—namely, how to ensure that all sectors of the early education space could participate in a state-funded program—by proposing a collaborative delivery model anchored within Mississippi’s local communities. Response to the brief was positive, but I knew we still had a long way to go before the state would pass a bill: our pre-K proposal needed legislative champions.

Enter Senator Wiggins, a freshman legislator in 2012 who had been actively involved in early education issues in his hometown and who ran on a platform of improving early education access and quality. After hearing Senator Wiggins’ passion during one of his first education committee meetings, I chased after him in the hallway to show him Leaving Last in Line. Right away, Senator Wiggins saw the power in the idea, and in December 2012, he asked Mississippi First to write a bill.

Representative Toby Barker was a natural choice for House champion. He had taken the time to read Leaving Last in Line and even suggested a few possible funding sources. As a young Republican on the education committee, Barker also had something that few other legislators could offer—respect from colleagues across the aisle and the ability to carry big, complex pieces of legislation through the sometimes-rowdy Mississippi House of Representatives. When Senator Wiggins requested a Senate bill, I suggested we talk to Representative Barker about introducing it in the House as well. Senator Wiggins agreed.

With these two legislators leading the charge, Mississippi First and other early education advocates including Head Start, the Mississippi Department of Education, school leaders, state and national early education experts, and childcare directors interested in quality began rounding up votes. The early education legislation received a major boost through endorsements from the Speaker and Lt. Governor. By final passage, the bill earned over 80% of the vote in both houses—the most bi-partisan education effort in several years. The Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013 was signed into law by the Governor on April 18, 2013, and went into effect on July 1, 2013.

Both Senator Wiggins and Representative Barker have said that the passage of this legislation is one of their biggest accomplishments. They worked closely with the Department of Education and advocates to implement the law in the first few years after passage. For legislators to take such a close interest in a bill after it has passed is a testament to how strongly they believe in the power of pre-K. In 2017, Representative Barker left the legislature to become the mayor of his town of Hattiesburg after a ten-year career in the legislature. Senator Wiggins continues to advocate for pre-K within the legislature.

In fact, this is how the 2018 expansion happened: Senator Wiggins was able to convince budget writers to increase pre-K funding when a few million dollars were unexpectedly on the table after a different bill fell through. From the outside, it may look like a stroke of luck that Senator Wiggins was in the right place at the right time. The reality is closer to the old adage that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Senator Wiggins secured the funds because he has a long-term commitment to pre-K and the strategic sense to take advantage of an opportunity. This is the best kind of partner that an advocate can hope for.

As we look to the future, we know that we can never take our legislative champions for granted. Representative Barker is a case in point, as we are still seeking his equal in the House. Mississippi First will have a special focus this year on educating legislators as well as statewide leaders about the program. We will also continue to work with Senator Wiggins on legislative strategy for expanding the program and increasing pre-K per-pupil funding to at least $5,000. With our champions on our side, we can’t wait to see what we can accomplish for kids.

- Rachel Canter, Executive Director
Mississippi First

(September 5, 2018)