By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Mississippi government would directly fund a limited preschool program for the first time under a bill on its way to Gov. Phil Bryant.
The House and Senate on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 2395, which would send money to regional groups of preschool providers. The House favored the measure 97-17, while the Senate voted for it 37-11.
The state would create a preschool program that could serve 1,325 4-year-olds in its first year, using a $3 million appropriation. Groups of preschool providers would have to apply for grants and would use private donations, federal money or other funds to match the state money.
The program would begin by September 2014. The Department of Education would set rules and choose grant winners, focusing on areas with low academic achievement or few high-quality preschools. Preschools whose students don’t meet a minimum readiness rate for kindergarten over time would lose funds.
Though the state now supplies some matching money for a federal program that gives child care vouchers to low-income working parents, it is currently the last state in the South that doesn’t directly fund prekindergarten. Advocates hailed Tuesday’s votes as an important first step toward a broad program, saying the bill is designed to improve the quality of preschool in Mississippi.
“I think this is historic for the state of Mississippi and its children,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.
The victories came after spirited debate in the House and the Senate, with conservative Republicans questioning whether the program would stop church preschools from teaching religion, would cost the state too much money, or would be effective in improving academic achievement.
“We talk about fiscal responsibility,” said Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, noting that the cost of a program in Michigan grew from $1 million to more than $100 million over time. “When does it end? Do we put a cap on it?”
Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, noted that the bill appeared to raise the standards for all teachers in any state or federally subsidized child care program. She warned this could cause current workers — including her mother — to lose their jobs. Some black Senate Democrats also expressed the same fear, but voted for the bill after advocates said the provision would not have the broad effect Hill feared. Supporters also promised to revise the law next year if the provision proves problematic.
Watson, Hill and Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, are at the core of a group of Senate Republicans who sometimes oppose other senators when they believe legislation supported by Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves violates conservative principles. They led Senate opposition Tuesday. Likewise in the House, the most conservative Republicans were vocal opponents.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said that although some tea party members have spoken against publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs in recent years, he’s not a recent convert. “I have been anti-pre-K for more than 15 years, long before we ever heard of them,” Formby said.
Supporters emphasized that business leaders support expanded prekindergarten. “We are always pushing for economic development, and any expert in the matter can tell you that economic development trails education,” said Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.