Mississippi just celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its launch of a collaborative pre-k program. The mixed-delivery model allows families in communities to choose the setting and style that works for them. An original funding structure requires local sources to put up 50% of the cost, and a tax credit incentivizes companies and individuals to make donations in support of the program.
The 2013 debut allocated $3 million for 11 early learning collaboratives By 2021, $16 million in state funds supported 17 collaboratives, and just one year later, $24 million enabled Mississippi to support 35.
“It’s a very popular program regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on,” says Micayla Tatum, Director of Early Childhood Policy with Mississippi First. She points to Republican state senator Brice Wiggins who has been a steadfast supporter. “Pre-k has become the darling of the state legislature,” she marvels, adding that this success took a decade of research, advocacy, and engagement.
According to Rachel Canter, Mississippi First’s cofounder and executive director, “The secret sauce is relationship building with champions.”
She can still remember when the program was less than popular. “Some powerful people tried to dissuade me from even talking about it,” she says. “So when it happened, it felt like a miracle.”
Canter traces the recent surge in funding to a new crop of legislators that arrived in 2020.
Laying the groundwork for their support, Mississippi First created a briefing book for candidates. “We didn’t put it on our website,” she notes. “We made it specifically for politicians, explaining what the program was, how it worked, what we were asking for, what the budget implications were, and what they could do about it.” Most persuasively, the tool presented polling data that showed that Mississippians overwhelmingly supported government support for pre-k, something Canter and team stressed when meeting major candidates for statewide office. As a result of these efforts, every major candidate for statewide office went on the record in support of pre-k.
Helene Stebbins, executive director of the Alliance for Early Success—an investor in Mississippi First—credits Canter for her tenacity and her strategic thinking. “Mississippi First has always cultivated these relationships so that when it’s time to make an ask, there’s a productive connection in place,” Stebbins says. “That’s why we’ve made a long-term commitment to Mississippi First. Boots on the ground, with sustained funding, allow these relationships to grow.”
A January 2020 joint hearing of the House and the Senate Education Committee signaled that the legislature was serious about the issue and willing to make good on campaign promises. Canter testified along with program participants.
“It’s hard not to like four-year-olds,” she says. “And the outcomes are so good that it became the highest priority.”
In order to publicly acknowledge legislators going out on a limb for early education, Mississippi First resorted to old-fashioned postcards. Constituents in the districts of four legislative champions received thank-you cards, crediting the representatives for their support. “Mail is expensive,” Canter admits, “but those postcards got noticed.” The elderly aunts of one legislator called to tell him they were proud of him. Thank-yous, Canter stipulates, are not considered lobbying.
With the pandemic, Mississippi First’s progress slowed down a bit. A bill was working its way through the legislature that was going to increase the per-pupil rate and set up the expansion, but then the session shut down. “They sent everybody home in March 2020,” Canter recalls. “And when we came back in the summer, they decided to kill all of the general bills except for absolute emergencies.”
The Alliance is continuing to support Mississippi First’s efforts, including its How to Start a Pre-K Collaborative Toolkit and its Raise the Rate campaign, which aims to boost the amount per student that the state provides. “We costed it down to the crayon,” Canter says. “We were able to show that the money provided by the state was not enough to sustain quality.”
Allison H. Friedman-Krauss, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), says that nearly every state struggles with the tension between access and quality. NIEER’s authoritative State of Preschool Yearbook recognizes Mississippi as one of only five states that met all quality standards for pre-k.
“Sometimes you have to start small,” says Friedman-Krauss. “And then, with a plan in place, you can expand.”
Ten years since its passage, the Early Learning Collaborative Act has demonstrated success across the state and continues to gain momentum. An award ceremony for the 10th anniversary of the legislation provided yet another chance to recognize early learning champions and to solidify goodwill for pre-k.
“It’s an election year in Mississippi for governor as well as some important state offices,” says Tatum, “and all of our legislators are up for reelection. We’re excited to see what happens.”