In what some observers are calling an unprecedented effort to raise badly needed funds, the state schools chiefs from four Southern states are banding together to seek more money for education from private and federal sources. Their first order of business: prekindergarten.
School leaders in the four states—Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi— decided to form the regional coalition after efforts to garner more money from their own states fell short.
Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said she was unaware of other such regional fund- raising efforts by state education officials. “That is a new one on me,” she said. “They should be able to get some advantage out of it.”
Edward L. Richardson and Richard L. Thompson, who are the superintendents of education for Alabama and Mississippi, respectively, proposed the strength-in-numbers idea after a meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board last year, according to Louisiana Superintendent Cecil J. Picard. The group of four, which also includes Arkansas schools Superintendent Raymond Simon, met last December to discuss common problems. At Mr. Picard’s urging, they settled on pre-K programs as their first priority, the Louisiana schools chief said.
“Unless we get down there and take care of the birth to 4-year-olds, we won’t be able to raise [student achievement] appreciably,” he said.
Eventually, the coalition would like to address the issues of school safety, alternative teacher certification, teacher salaries, and school-to-work programs, Mr. Picard said.
One characteristic the four states have in common is poverty, a factor that policymakers see as driving up a state’s need for subsidized preschool programs but which makes paying for such programs difficult.
According to the 1999 Kids Count Data Book, an annual report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the four states fare poorly on several measures of child welfare.
For example, Louisiana ranked first in the nation in child poverty, with 32 percent of its children living in poor families in 1996, the latest figures available. Mississippi had the highest mortality rates among both infants and children between birth and age 14. Alabama and Arkansas did not fare much better, scoring in the top 10 percent in both infant- and child-death rates.
Along with their poverty, the four states share a tendency to lag behind national norms on measures of student achievement. For example, the four tend to finish near the bottom of the pack among states that participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the voluntary federal program that tests a sampling of students in key subjects.
Such grim statistics only make the need for preschool more pressing, Mr. Picard argued.
“Some of the kids who do not have access to pre-K programs have not seen a pencil before, don’t know their numbers, and have no social skills,” he said. Programs for 4-year-olds should give youngsters all those skills, he added.
Mr. Thompson said skills learned in early- childhood programs affect future academic achievement, and have social implications as well.
“Quality pre-K relates to how well these kids do in life,” the Mississippi superintendent said. For example, he said, prekindergarten attendance has been tied to reduced rates of later problems such as teenage pregnancy. In the hope of attracting outside funding, the four superintendents intend this year to focus on drawing up a proposal to present to Congress, foundations, and private philanthropists early next year.
Mr. Picard said the chiefs hope to tap the generosity of people like James L. Barksdale, the former Netscape chief executive officer who last month gave $100 million to a Mississippi reading program.
Strength in Numbers?
Ms. Christie suggested that the regional approach may give the states an advantage with funding sources that favor programs that cross boundaries. “There does seem to be a fair amount of support out there for the early- childhood piece of the puzzle,” she said.
She added that early- childhood programs may prove a good starting place for the coalition because many voters believe that funding for such programs should be left up to families rather than taxpayers.
One place the schools chiefs have found a precedent is North Carolina’s Smart Start program. Millions of dollars have been pledged to the preschool program from sources such as the telecommunications giant AT&T, the drug company Glaxo Wellcome, and the supermarket chain Food Lion.
If such funding comes through for the new coalition, Mr. Picard said, he would like to form a foundation to oversee it. But the individual states would run any early-childhood programs that resulted from their joint effort.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as State Chiefs Team Up To Scout for Federal, Private Funds