State hoping for grant to build preschool system

JACKSON — Parents would receive matching funds to send their children to better preschools.

Preschool teachers would receive financial incentives to enhance their education.

Those are just two elements of a proposal to improve early child education in the state if Mississippi is awarded up to $50 million in the federal Race to the Top early learning challenge.

“One of the things about this is trying to change our state’s attitude toward education, period,” Cathy Grace chairwoman of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council.

The money, which would be awarded over four years, would be used to build a unified, statewide early education program that could be sustained once the challenge funds run out.

Mississippi has until Oct. 19 to submit its application. The U.S. Department of Education should announce the winners by the end of the year.

The grant could make a big difference in Mississippi, where about 33 percent of children live in poverty, Grace said. That’s a higher percentage than any other state.

“This is about children, and that’s very clear in this proposal,” said Grace, director of early childhood development for Children’s Defense Fund.

The grant’s main goal is to help states get more children who are at risk because of low income or special needs into high quality child care.

Some child care providers around the state say they have not had significant input in the development of the proposal even though they will be among the most affected if the plan is enacted.

Cassandra Welchlin, project coordinator of the Child Care Matters Campaign for the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said a concern is that the proposal includes allocating some of the grant funds for a restructuring of the state Department of Human Services.

“That seems really unnecessary because that money could go into other things such as providing more money for centers to meet the quality ratings,” she said.

A general argument is the greatest possible percentage of the funds would need to go to the child care centers.

Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said many child care centers serve parents who can’t afford to pay very much. She described a system where the business owners struggle to keep their heads above water. It’s difficult for them to be able to afford teachers who have attained more education or to pay for training.

The adults providing the child care need “to understand early childhood development,” Burnett said.

“They need to know why this particular puzzle or this particular set of blocks is going to teach concepts to a child.”

Adults also need to be able to foster an environment where a child feels safe to learn and explore. They need to understand what behavior is reasonable for children of different ages, she said.

Those things happen before a child starts to speak, Burnett said. Those in the field of early education generally agree on the importance of the quality of adults working with children.

The reality is those working in child care are paid minimum wage and receive no benefits, she said.

Grace compared the proposed parents’ saving plan to the Mississippi Prepaid Affordable College Tuition program. Under the proposal, there would be a pilot program where low-income children can save money for early education and have those savings matched.

“The better quality center they go to, the more of a match they get,” Grace said.

That would help parents decide what is quality and why they should choose better programs even if it costs more, she said.

Mississippi is one of 10 states and the only Southern state with no universal early education program. Three other states without universal pre-K — Hawaii, Wyoming and Idaho — also are competing for Race to the Top funds.

Another positive aspect of the proposal is extending the length of time before re-determining whether low-income working parents can continue to receive vouchers to help with their child care expenses, Welchlin said.

Right now, there is six-month period and that would be change to a year under the proposal.

“I think this application could possibly be great because, across the board we definitely need to be able to get our centers to have high quality,” Welchlin said.

But there needs to be transparency in the process or it feeds distrust, she said.

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