Why did state lawmakers give $850,000 for an Ole Miss preschool program that charges participants?

Published 2:40 pm Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Lawmakers have earmarked $850,000 for a tuition-charging University of Mississippi preschool between 2016 and 2019 as they struggled to find money to expand other preschools statewide, The Clarion Ledger reported.

The Oxford preschool is operated by the Ole Miss School of Education and is a teaching school for education students.

Tuition for one year at the Willie Price Learning Lab costs $5,850 for university-affiliated families and $6,850 for community members.

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The money spent at Willie Price was enough to fund about 100 matching grants for free, public preschools in each of those four years, under Mississippi’s state preschool program. Instead, it went to a preschool that currently serves 72 preschoolers whose families can afford the tuition.

Gov. Phil Bryant criticized the spending in 2017, when he vetoed an earmark for an education vendor and singled out other programs receiving earmarks.

“Going forward, I hope the Legislature will closely examine existing programs, and ask tough questions,” Bryant wrote. “For instance, does a single child care center housed at the University of Mississippi that charges $6,000 in annual tuition merit $200,000 in annual funding?”

Lawmakers decided it did, continuing $200,000-a-year appropriations in 2018 and 2019.

Outgoing Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican, defends the spending. He says the school instructs future teachers, helping to spread good ideas.

“I thought it was important that we have a school that is providing research and resources that is providing best practices (for Mississippi),” Tollison said.

Ole Miss spokesman Rod Guajardo wrote in an email that Willie Price will have a sliding tuition scale starting next year that will be based on a family’s income.

Enrollment is projected to climb to 108 next year.

Guajardo said the money was used to achieve and maintain accreditation from the National Association for Education of Young Children, which he described as “a rigorous accomplishment achieved in 2018.”

He said Willie Price used the money in part to improve graduate student research, install and maintain audio and video systems for observation and create programs for art and physical activity and wellness.

Prekindergarten programs at Mississippi State University, Delta State University, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi have the same accreditation.

Unlike Willie Price, they haven’t received legislative earmarks.

A Clarion Ledger investigation has found lawmakers pumped nearly $10 million to 13 education vendors without bids or contracts since 2016, and several vendors hired influential lobbyists or made donations to key lawmakers.

For instance, from 2011 to 2016 lawmakers gave $1.5 million to Weight Watchers with little documentation and oversight.

The Willie Price Learning Lab didn’t go through any competitive bidding for its earmarks, which aren’t overseen by state education officials.

The school is located in the district of Tollison, an Ole Miss law school graduate.

“I’m an advocate for education. I’m an advocate for Ole Miss. And I’m an advocate for my home district,” Tollison said, again stressing that Willie Price has a statewide benefit.

Jean Cook, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education, said the state helps send children to preschool through its early learning collaborative program. Mississippi provides $2,150 per student in some areas as long as the local community chips in at least the same amount, Cook said.

Fewer than one in five Mississippi 4-year-olds are enrolled in free state and district-funded programs.

Statewide, only 36 percent of entering kindergarteners last fall were considered ready for school. More than 70 percent of children participating in the state’s program left ready for kindergarten in 2018.

Lawmakers added $170,000 to the state’s $6.5 million preschool grant program for the 2020 budget year.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Pascagoula Republican, sought this year to increase funding for early learning collaboratives.

“It’s a program that has been proven by the data, by the research, that we are getting a return on our investment,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins’ failed bill would have invested another $8 million. He declined comment on the Willie Price spending, but said state spending needs more scrutiny.

“There’s probably money throughout those appropriations bills that could be better spent and go to programs like the early learning collaborative centers,” Wiggins said.