October 29, 2013 10:38:27 AM
JACKSON -- The competition for $3 million in state money for preschool programs looks fierce.
The Department of Education says 72 groups have indicated interest in the money, which is supposed to fund at least 1,325 spots statewide. The money could stretch further if providers seek funds for cheaper half-day programs.
"It really shows the interest that is in our state for early education," said state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula. Wiggins, a longtime advocate of early schooling, was one of the primary sponsors of the legislation that would for the first time devote state money to preschool.
Mississippi was the only state in the South and one of only 11 nationwide with no state-funded preschool program when lawmakers agreed earlier this year to create one, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. At least twice before, lawmakers passed a preschool program but failed to fund it.
Wiggins says he hopes that if children can arrive better prepared in kindergarten, they can do better throughout school. "If we're going to compete with other states, we have to lay the foundation for our future," he said.
Full applications are due Nov. 5. The state Department of Education will then choose which applicants to fund.
Spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle says that announcement is likely later in November or in December. The number of applicants winning grants will be based partly on how many children top applicants aim to serve.
In choosing grant recipients, the state is supposed to focus on areas with low academic achievement or few high-quality preschools.
The groups are supposed to match the state money using sources including federal funds or private donations. Students will be tested using a kindergarten assessment to determine each program's effectiveness, and preschools whose students don't meet minimum standards for kindergarten would lose funds.
"This isn't going to be a pork-barrel project where money goes out to people and outcomes aren't measured," said Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, based in Amory. That group has put together a network of public and private prekindergarten programs in Monroe County that it has been coordinating and subsidizing. Most of that network is seeking state funding, which Spreitler said would ensure it could offer preschool to all children in Monroe County.
Spreitler said many poor children are already served by the federal Head Start program. That means beneficiaries of the state program could be children whose parents make too much money for Head Start but not enough to pay for high-quality child care.
About 50 of the community consortiums are led by public school districts, while the rest are led by private child care centers or nonprofit groups. Some led by private child care centers could be ineligible, because the law specifies that a community group must be led by a school or nonprofit.
Mississippi First, a group which backed the new law, found in an earlier study that at least 48 school districts are already using federal Title I anti-poverty money to pay for prekindergarten classes. At least 27 of the groups that sent letters of intent have such programs in their area, a possible source of matching funds for the state grant.
Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First, said she thought submissions in areas that are forming new community groups show high interest in expanding opportunity for young children.
"I think there's a huge amount of pent-up demand," she said.