Hunt Institute 2020 Early Childhood Learning Summit

December 2020


Remarks provided by former Governor Phil Bryant for a panel discussion on “Early Childhood as an Investment in Equity.” 

I appreciate The Hunt Institute’s invitation to be a panelist for this year’s Early Childhood Leadership Summit, especially since we’re discussing early childhood as an investment in equity.

I’ll begin with a number I’m sure you’re familiar with – it’s been widely published and is even highlighted on The Hunt Institute’s website – 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before kindergarten entry at age five. Let me say that again – 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before kindergarten entry at age five.

With the research that’s been done on this subject it’s very clear children’s early years play a special role in supporting long-term educational and life success.

All of us here today recognize that the early years – especially the first three – are a critical period of brain development. Infants and toddlers learn at exponential rates. They’re exploring their surroundings, engaging with their environments, and interacting with the adults around them. We need to ensure families have access to information and services that support their children’s health and development.

As we delve into today’s discussion, a few of the issues we need to address include racial and income inequities; workforce education and training; and risk and reach, all of which were pre-pandemic issues.

As our nation struggles through both COVID-19 and critical conversations about justice and social equity, state leaders need to look inward and think about what problems they have the power to solve. The pandemic has unveiled a new crisis as low-income children, many of them children of color, face additional barriers to accessing early care and education, leading to the possibility that early education in America may again become a luxury afforded only to the wealthy.

I look forward to a thoughtful conversation about what we can do to improve early childhood education.

When it comes to an overall approach, I think there are a variety of factors that should be taken into consideration. While we want to provide and maintain high-quality learning environments, we also need to address issues outside the classroom that contribute to a child’s success – health, safety, social development, emotional development, economic security – these are stressors for children and their families.

Risk and reach have an impact on a child’s classroom development and behavior. What are the significant risk factors experienced by children in Mississippi? How well are services reaching the children and families for whom they are intended?

Policymakers and educators not only need to address what they can do to improve classroom performance but also take a holistic approach and provide additional resources to help promote long-term academic and life success.

On the topics of workforce training and compensation, we’re all aware that compensation is an ongoing issue for educators, but we tend to talk about it more for schoolteachers – kindergarten through high school – than in terms of our early childhood workforce.

We need to recognize how essential the early childhood workforce is and look at stabilizing it in terms of compensation and preparation. Information available from the Center for Study of Child Care Employment shows the younger the child in the classroom, the less teachers are paid.

Early childhood educator wages are at or below the federal poverty level – on average it’s $18.5 thousand for a childcare worker and $25 thousand for a preschool teacher. At the most critical time in a child’s brain development, we’re paying educators less! Think about that.

How qualified can our early childhood workforce be, and how can we attract, much less retain that workforce when we’re paying them wages below the poverty level?

As pay decreases, the workforce population is more female and more women of color. We’re talking today about early childhood as an investment in equity, yet we’re starting out with disparities that lead to inequity. We’re expecting the early childhood workforce to be educated so they can properly educate our children, yet there is not a correlation to pay.

To create effective early childhood education systems, we must first understand demographics and common risk factors facing children.

In Mississippi it’s significant. 

  • From zero to age five, 70 percent of children have working parents 
  • 31 percent of children are in low-income working families
  • 30 percent of children live in poverty – which means their family’s annual income is less than 25 thousand dollars. 
  • For these families, survival is their priority – feeding their family, having a roof over their heads, keeping the lights on. Providing the basic necessities is top of mind, not what educational milestones their infants and toddlers have or have not reached.

Home visiting is one type of service targeted to expectant parents and parents with children ages 0-5. It’s designed to support healthy child development. There are various home visiting models and programs in each state, but typically they allow trained experts to provide services, share best practices, and connect families to other resources. All of this is done within the child’s home. We have a home visiting program in Mississippi, but the latest data I have shows we’re falling short. While more than 14 thousand home visits were made, a little more than 1,000 families were served.

When I was governor, I helped create the Family Based Unified and Integrated Early Childhood System, which connects and integrates resources and services for both parents/caregivers and their children. This system was expanded as Mississippi secured a $10.6 million federal Preschool Development Grant. This grant funding is helping to strengthen the state’s early childhood systems and improve access and quality for Mississippi families with children age five and under.

As a result of these and other early childhood reform efforts, Mississippi has boosted its ranking in fourth grade reading from 49th in 2013 to 29th in 2019, now leading the nation in growth, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

We need to work together – government, faith-based centers, private agencies, public schools, Head Start – to emphasize the need for early childhood education and find solutions for funding and resources. We also need to look beyond the classroom environment and teacher-child interactions to include and encourage family engagement.

A way for state leaders to address immediate needs created by the pandemic is to use relief funds to help focus on childcare access for our underserved families, including:

  • Temporarily increasing the rates paid to providers for subsidized care to the full market rates being charged to cash-pay parents.
  • Offsetting full costs. This eliminates the incentive to prioritize service to affluent children over those in greatest need.
  • Maximizing the use of the CARES Act and other funding to help subsidize childcare and early education for low-income families.
  • Prioritizing the use of state dollars to continue utilizing the state system that serves children ages zero to five, including public preschool.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the new and potentially long-lasting inequities COVID-19 is about to prescribe upon our younger children.

I’ve been an advocate for education even before my tenure as Governor, and my time in public service brought to light why it’s so important to focus on early childhood education.

 The Hunt Institute has been a great partner in those efforts. Their dedication and state partnerships have led to tangible, model programs – a newborn home visiting program in Oregon, a preschool development grant program in Idaho, early childhood legislative caucuses in multiple states – all designed to provide early childhood resources, education, and support to families, educators and policy makers. 

My hope is that today’s discussion leads to an increase in the development, availability and access to early childhood education programs, both inside and outside of the classroom. Working together we can find ways to promote and provide racial, socioeconomic, and other forms of equity.