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Education leaders applying for $15M in grants for pre-kindergarten program

schoolJACKSON — The Mississippi Department of Education plans to seek grants from the federal government worth up to $15 million a year for four years to expand an existing pre-kindergarten program.

That money could boost Mississippi’s fledgling effort to provide state-paid preschool for 4-year-olds. Supporters had hoped lawmakers would expand the amount of money they were putting into the program, but held it at $3 million this year.

State Superintendent Carey Wright told members of the Board of Education that Mississippi expects to submit its application next month. It will know whether it won by December.

Mississippi is one of 16 states that can seek the money. Wright said the federal government plans to allocate $80 million a year for such states.

Up to 35 percent of the money could be used for teacher training, testing student readiness and progress, licensing and parent engagement. The remaining 65 percent is supposed to be for “high-quality” preschool classes.

The money would build on Mississippi’s existing system, which granted $2 million to 11 consortia in December. Those groups said they will serve 1,200 children.

As part of federal grant effort, the state is seeking interest from local groups. When the state made the 11 awards last year, it turned down 19 other applicants. Grant documents show the state could serve up to another 3,134 children if it wins $15 million a year. Each consortium could receive money for up to 200 new students.

The state plans to choose possible recipients for the federal money by Friday.

The federal money could not replace existing spending, but the 11 current recipients could expand their programs. Local communities would have to match the money dollar-for-dollar, as they do now under the state program.

Consortiums must show a working relationship among a school district and other entities, evidence that local children are in need and the ability to help them.

Wright said she also met with foundations who may donate money for expanded preschool classes.

“It gave us an opportunity to talk about the state’s needs,” she said.

State Board of Education member Danny Spreitler of Amory has spearheaded one of the groups that got state money. He questioned the move, saying he feared it would squeeze out private child care centers in favor of offering 4-year-old preschool only in public schools and Head Start facilities.

“By what authority are we expanding these collaborations?” Spreitler said. “I cannot find any statutes where we have been given the authority to create another grade.”

Wright said that the grant would only build on existing state law and would not commit any state money.

The Gilmore Early Learning Initiative, which Spreitler has led, received $174,210 in the December round of grants for a group including the Gilmore Foundation, Amory School District, Monroe County School District, local Head Start centers and private child care centers.

 

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