This op-ed originally appeared in the Clarion-Ledger on April 26, 2020.

Life never seems to follow a straight line.

Six months ago, the Mississippi economy was moving along and all signs pointed to new — read, unallocated — money in the budget for the 2020 legislative session. At last, Mississippi would have money for all those things we know we need but have been putting off.

Then, the juggernaut of the coronavirus plowed right over all of us.

Like many parents of young children, I spent the week of March 16 in a daze. School was canceled and my two small kids were home while I was trying to work. My husband was still going into the office, and I felt the weight of everything falling on top of me all at once — my full-time job advocating for Mississippi’s kids, my other full-time job as a mom, and a series of new full-time jobs as teacher, infectious disease prevention coordinator and quarantine prepper. I was not the only one facing these challenges. On my staff alone, three of the four of us have young children and are trying to patch together time for work. Friends and colleagues with jobs and children or other caretaker responsibilities are having an equally difficult time. Every day has felt like running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace, often just to stay in place where I started. As the exhaustion bears down, I have also never felt so grateful to be so slammed: I feel lucky just to have a job for a little while longer.

Yet, in the rare quiet moments of that first week, my heart was breaking for Mississippi’s future. 2020 is the year we were going to win the largest growth in funding for state pre-K since the program began seven years ago. Pre-K is an investment in children for the long term, one whose effect can be seen immediately but is not fully realized until children become adults. In this time of moment-to-moment crisis, would our leaders still see the value in building better citizens for tomorrow?

Then, something remarkable happened. I saw people far and wide gain a greater appreciation for how indispensable early childhood care and education are. I saw childcare workers called critical and teachers called heroes. I saw it finally dawn on people who haven’t had to make it as the head of a young family in the 21st century that pre-K is not an “extra;” it’s essential.

Mississippi’s Early Learning Collaborative Act is not only our state’s pre-K program; it’s the backbone of Mississippi’s commitment to the education and care of young children. Our voluntary program, which includes childcare, public schools, and Head Start, provides education that meets the needs of families and 4-year-olds within their community. It’s also one of the best pre-K programs in the country.

Just this month, the National Institute for Early Education Research announced that Mississippi is one of only four states in the country that meet all 10 of their benchmarks for quality pre-K programs, an enormous accomplishment.

No prosperous future can happen without services that support parents going back to work. Nor can a prosperous future happen without an educated population. Pre-K perfectly meets both of these needs. It provides a safe and warm atmosphere for kids during the work day while also ensuring they receive a strong and age-appropriate academic program and those important socio-emotional skills to cope with a changing environment.

Now is not the time to wait and see. Now is the time to accelerate progress in Mississippi by passing and funding the pre-K bill waiting in the House. Parents need to work. Children need a great start in life. Mississippi needs pre-K now.

Rachel Canter is the executive director of Mississippi First. She lives in Jackson with her husband and two young daughters.

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