Hopson ‘won’t give up’ on statewide pre-K plan

Published 12:11 pm Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fully implementing prekindergarten and expanding kindergarten in Mississippi public schools is a fight state Sen. Briggs Hopson III won’t give up easily.

“I’ve been passionate about that,” Hopson told a Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday in response to a question on the topic.

It’s mandatory for school districts in Mississippi to offer kindergarten, but attendance is optional. Two bills Hopson filed during the most recent legislative session that would have required attendance and phased in pre-K programs died in committee. Three similarly styled bills in the Senate and two in the House also died.

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Hopson didn’t say whether he’d file the bill again next year, but indicated the lack of developmental pre-K programs is of particular distress.

“We’re the only state in the country right now that doesn’t have it,” Hopson said. “We were the last state to get kindergarten. Now we’re going to be the last state with a pre-K program.”

With some educators from the Vicksburg Warren School District in the packed conference room — including Superintendent Elizabeth Swinford and District 2 Trustee Zelmarine Murphy — Hopson, also the public school system’s attorney, said the issue hits close to home.

“For those of you in the teaching business — you can tell the difference in the kids who come to kindergarten who’ve had some kind of pre-K training and those who haven’t,” Hopson said. “I watched it in my three children when they got to kindergarten. They’ve been in a private pre-K program that we were fortunate enough to send them.”

Children in pre-K programs “know how to write their name, tell their colors and do blocks” once they enter a kindergarten or similar program, he said, while those who were not “couldn’t tell what the letter A is.”

In an overview of the legislative session concluded earlier this month, Hopson, who sits on the Senate Education Committee and chairs Judiciary A, said he still favors individual district choice on when the school year starts and termed new credits for business “a good thing.”

“My feeling is, let the school board decide when they want to start,” he said on House Bill 707, which pushed the start of the school year to the third Monday in August, at the earliest. It becomes effective in 2014-15. Hopson was one of 21 senators with recorded no votes on the measure.

A tiered cut of taxes on inventory held by businesses, based on volume, could be used to attract new industry to the Port of Vicksburg or Ceres industrial park, Hopson said.

Hopson said the House’s version of a bond bill to fund aid for local governments to improve bridges and buy new fire trucks was at least three times more expensive than the Senate version. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, presiding officer in the Senate, said at session’s end that the state’s debt was getting too high and mitigated against melding it with the House bill.

“I can’t blame him,” Hopson said. “We had gone too far the last couple years.”

Redistricting, while contentious during the 2011 session, ended “pretty smoothly,” he said. Passed 46-5 in the Senate, the chamber’s new map reduces the number of split precincts from 129 to 14. District 23, held by Hopson since 2008, still covers all of Warren and Issaquena counties but picks up six more precincts in Yazoo County in the new plan effective for the 2015 election cycle.