By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The process of local communities applying for grants to participate in a state-sponsored pre-kindergarten program begins this week.
The collaborative groups wanting to participate in the program must notify the state Department of Education of their intent by Wednesday. The state Board of Education is scheduled to announce the groups awarded grants on Dec. 19.
The Mississippi Legislature created the pre-kindergarten pilot program during the 2013 session and appropriated $3 million for the effort. Before the 2013 legislation, Mississippi was the only Southeastern state and one of only a handful in the nation not expending any state funds on early childhood education.
If the pilot program is deemed a success, supporters of early childhood education are expected to try to increase funding for the effort. The Legislature is asking for funding for the program to be doubled to $6 million in 2014.
According to statistics provided during the 2014 session, to fully enact the program statewide would entail an appropriation of about $34 million to cover 15,000 students.
“Research has shown that those who have strong early learning experiences have more success throughout school and into their careers,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, an education advocacy group.
The state Department of Education sets standards for consortiums that would include local school districts, Head Start centers and private child-care providers for a voluntary 4-year-old program.
Besides $3 million appropriated for the first phase of the program, state tax credits totaling $3 million can be provided to corporations or people contributing to the operation of the consortiums.
“My goal is for communities, where parents want pre-kindergarten, to focus their resources on early childhood education,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who was a leading advocate for the program during the 2013 session. “Mississippi’s businesses have advocated for early childhood education as a way to strengthen the workforce, and this public-private partnership to support pre-kindergarten can work.”
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said state department officials say they have received strong interest in the program from throughout the state.
“This is the right way to do it, to start small with a deliberate effort,” Tollison, said, adding he believes the program “will make a huge difference in the long run if it is done right.”
The way the program is set up, a public school district or “other non-profit with the instructional expertise and operational capacity to manage a collaborative” would serve as the “lead partner.”
State funds can be used for staff, including training, and to purchase materials deemed appropriate under state Department of Education guidelines. Collaboratives awarded grants will be eligible for $2,150 in state funds per student for day-long programs and $1,075 per student for half-day programs.
Tupelo School Superintendent Gearl Loden said at a recent meeting the district intends to apply for a grant.