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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers his State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Gov. Mike Parson's office announced Thursday afternoon that Missouri will benefit from a $6.5 million federal grant to be used to overhaul the state's early childhood care and education systems.

"Missouri families with children age birth to 5 who participate in early learning programs in the state will benefit from a $6.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," Parson's office said in a news release, adding the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had gotten word of the award Thursday.

"The grant will be used to fund the Stronger Together Missouri project, which aims to implement a comprehensive, statewide, birth-to-kindergarten-entry needs assessment and to update the state's Early Childhood Strategic Plan to enhance long-term sustainability in early childhood services," the news release said.

"Information gathered from the needs assessment will be combined with information from the statewide Quality Assurance Report initiative to identify areas in need of intervention to maximize parental choice and knowledge of early learning programs, share best practices and improve the quality of (the) Early Childhood Care and Education system," the release added.

The Quality Assurance Report is an early learning initiative DESE is developing to "provide a continuous quality improvement process for early learning programs and to provide families with consumer education about the quality of early learning programs," according to information on DESE's website.

The overall mission of Missouri's Early Childhood Strategic Plan is "To ensure that Missouri's early childhood programs and services are comprehensive, coordinated, accessible, adequately funded and of the highest quality to meet the needs and to promote the well-being of all young children and their families. This can be accomplished by (a) developing key partnerships, (b) building collaborative strategies, (c) ensuring equal access to necessary resources, resulting in the implementation of an effective and sustainable early childhood system, and (d) being compliant with all applicable federal and state law."

Parson said: "We are proud and excited about the partnership among the Governor's Office, the Missouri Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education, Health and Senior Services, Mental Health and Social Services, the Missouri Head Start State Collaboration Office and the Missouri Foundation for Health that brought this grant to reality."

"Collaboration among state partners is key to effectively serving our students and families," Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Margie Vandeven said in Parson's news release. "Access to high quality early learning opportunities will help prepare every student for success in school and in life," Vandeven added.

Parson's office said Missouri will begin to implement the federal grant "early this year," and the grant is effective for one year.

Missouri currently allocates $18 million to early childhood development and the Parents as Teachers program — or approximately 47.5 percent less than what was allocated in the 2009 fiscal year, which was just before deep cuts to the funding in following years.

The PAT program operates through the state's public school system and serves prenatal to kindergarten entry-aged children and their families. The goals of the PAT program are to promote early childhood development, prevent child abuse and neglect, provide early detection of developmental delays and health issues, increase children's readiness for school, and build a head start of positive relationships between families and schools, according to DESE.

There is a statewide waiting list of thousands of families seeking assistance through the PAT program — including some families at Jefferson City Public Schools. The statewide funding cuts led the district to cut almost half its PAT educators from its staff — from 22 full-time to 12, though that's now 11 full-time and two part-time educators.

The district's wait list has shrunk significantly in the past year to its shortest in several years, according to its PAT coordinator Katie Epema — from a wait list of 142 families to 24, Epema said in November.

The Blair Oaks R-2 school district did not report a wait list for its PAT program, but its PAT coordinator Shauna Kerperin nevertheless advocated for more statewide funding last year to the Missouri House Education Appropriations Committee.

DESE had asked Parson for a $5.4 million, or about 30 percent increase to funding for the PAT program, in the 2020 fiscal year budget. Parson's 2020 budget does recommend an increase, though less of one — approximately $3.06 million, or a 17 percent increase. Parson also recommends spending approximately $194.6 million on early childhood special education — $3 million more than currently.

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