News Release

SEF launches network to expand, improve early childhood education across the South

NEWS RELEASE – Oct. 25, 2023 – Contact: Alan Richard, (202) 641-1300

ATLANTA — The Southern Education Foundation is launching the Southern Early Childhood Education Justice (SECEJ) network, uniting more than 30 state policy organizations and advocates to focus on improving and expanding early learning opportunities for young children across the South.

The SECEJ network will advocate for systemic and transformative early childhood policy improvements in the South, focusing especially on historically underserved children of color and those in low-income families.

Home to nearly 60% of the nation’s Black children under age 5 and half of the nation’s young children in low-income households, many families in the 17-state SEF region would benefit from greater access to high-quality programs that can help children thrive and be prepared for school.

“This is an important new chapter in our more than 155 years of work for greater racial justice and equity in education, and it will build more knowledge and support for better early childhood programs across a major portion of our country,” said Raymond C. Pierce, the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation.

The SECEJ network is supported by a three-year, $3.1 million grant from the Bezos Family Foundation. Nearly three dozen early childhood organizations have joined the network since its pilot phase that began in early 2022.

Many states in the SEF region were at the forefront of early childhood education by launching statewide public pre-K programs. However, enrollment in these programs has stalled in many states, leaving many families and communities without the services children badly need.

Only about 40% of the region’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in free, public pre-K programs in the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Access to child care is also a major issue in the South: In 10 of the 17 SEF states, the average annual costs of infant care are higher than the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities in the region.

“Our goal is affordable, high-quality universal early care and education that reaches every child of color and child from a low-income home in our region,” Pierce said. “The infant-toddler care crisis currently costs our nation $122 billion annually in lost earnings, productivity, and tax revenue. We believe that most parents, policymakers, and business and community leaders in the South understand that investing more in our youngest children and their families will pay great dividends for all.”

The SECEJ network will develop a regional policy and advocacy agenda to address issues across the early childhood spectrum — including the escalating costs of high-quality child care and low compensation for early childhood educators.

SEF will also support the development of state advocacy councils in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The councils will include a diverse set of partners such as parents and caregivers, child-care providers, and other supporters of early learning. Each state council will recommend and advocate for changes in policy and practice that support young children and the early care workforce.

“SEF brings a deep legacy and understanding of education policy and racial equity in the South,” said Cameron Clark, the Bezos Family Foundation program officer working with the SEF network. “The evidence is clear on what can make a difference for families in the early years. We are excited by the potential of SECEJ to help more southern families, particularly families of color, access these programs.”

While there are many ways in which southern states can increase support for their youngest children, the region is also the home of many successful early childhood initiatives. For example, Alabama and Mississippi have enacted major expansions of pre-K programs in recent years.

SECEJ is focused on ensuring that high-quality programs and opportunities reach the children in the South who can benefit the most. The network’s goal is to help build a movement that will lead to significant improvements in the lives of children — by harnessing collective action among a wide range of partners and producing greater results than state-level organizations might accomplish in isolation.

For more information, contact SEF Communications.

The Southern Education Foundation is a 155-year-old education and civil rights organization based in Atlanta. We work to improve education in 17 states and across the nation, with an emphasis on Black students and students from low-income families.

ALSO: Join us for SEF’s 2023 Issues Forum, Nov. 14-17 in Charlotte, NC. Hundreds of experts, advocates, and allies will convene to develop a new agenda for improving education in the South. Key topics include early childhood education, K-12 school resource equity, racial segregation in K-12 and higher education, and college access and opportunity. Journalists are invited. Contact Alan Richard at for more details.