- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that Mississippi has missed out on its share of $250 million in federal money to expand its fledgling prekindergarten program.

The state applied for the money in October, asking as much as $60 million over four years to boost a state-paid preschool program for 4-year-olds. Mississippi has spent $3 million a year in each of the last two years.

“High-quality early learning programs help children develop the foundational skills that are critical for success in kindergarten and beyond,” state Superintendent Carey Wright said in a statement. “We will continue to seek ways to build upon the state’s early learning collaboratives because all children in our state deserve the opportunity to get a strong start in school and life.”

Every state that borders Mississippi - Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee were among the 18 states that won part of the grant money. A total of 36 states applied.

Mississippi also did not receive funds in earlier rounds of grants, although it applied in 2011 and 2013.

The state is likely to benefit from some of the $500 million in awards from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to local groups across 49 states to expand Head Start partnerships with local child care providers to take care of infants and toddlers.

Though a large majority of Mississippi 4-year-olds spend their days in child care centers outside the home, experts say not all those centers provide high-quality preparation.

“What still haunts me is the huge unmet need in place after place, places like Mississippi, where they’ve never done anything before.” U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan told reporters Tuesday in a conference call previewing the announcement.

State Board of Education member Danny Spreitler of Amory, who runs a foundation active in expanding and improving child care in Monroe County, said the loss was “demoralizing.”

Spreitler said he thought the state’s proposal has suffered from “too much bureaucracy and not enough direct money to children” and said Mississippi needs to improve coordination among the groups that fund and regulate child care.

The effort run by the state Department of Education granted $2 million to 11 regional consortiums that pay school districts, Head Start providers and private child care centers to enroll four-year-olds. Those groups serve 1,200 children. But 19 other consortiums that sought state cash were rejected. Mississippi planned to use the grant to add classes for 3,134 more children if it had won $15 million a year.

State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who spearheaded the bill setting up the new consortiums, said he was “disappointed” by the loss.

Wiggins said losing the federal grant shouldn’t affect continuing efforts to expand the state effort, although lawmakers didn’t expand it in 2014.

“This is something we’ve been doing before that was even an option,” Wiggins said.

Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, said Mississippi should keep laying the groundwork for further expansion.

“I think a place like Mississippi, there’s an awful lot you can do at the local level,” said Perry, whose group supports federal prekindergarten spending. “As discouraging as it is, it’s an important time to be prepared.”

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