Georgia is at risk of losing its national reputation as a leader in early childhood education with a proposal to cut nearly $20 million from the pre-k program, which rules out any expansion of the popular program.
Georgia was considered the national leader when it introduced universal pre-k in 1995, but that initial momentum has slowed. Today, about 53 percent of the state’s eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled in lottery-financed pre-k classes, either in public or private schools. In contrast, Oklahoma has 70 percent of its 4-year-olds enrolled in its public pre-k.
Emerging research on brain development in toddlers and preschoolers led then-Gov. Zell Miller and Georgia to become pioneers in early child education, using lottery proceeds to pay for universal prekindergarten. (The state also funds its HOPE Scholarships through the lottery.)
However, the state has failed to build on that momentum, stalling on plans to greatly expand access in areas where they are waiting lists for slots. There has also been a long campaign by some intown lawmakers to introduce classes for low-income 3-year-olds, whose parents lack the resources to expose them to rich learning environments.
According to research, poor children benefit most from programs that emphasize school readiness and language development. Such early intervention can close the gaps that prevent low-income children from being able to read at third grade.
But there are some lawmakers who still maintain that the state should not be providing what they deem to be free day- care. Supporters counter that if the state doesn’t reach out to these children at age 3 and 4, it will lose them at age 16 or 17, when they are more likely to drop out of high school.
As with HOPE, the budget crisis is forcing hard questions, including whether we should limit pre-k to low-income kids. There is research that preschool has less academic benefit for children from higher income households, likely because those parents provide enrichment for their children in the home.
According to the AJC:
Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing to cut nearly $20 million from the pre-k program this year, and Georgia taxpayers face a difficult question: Can they afford free pre-k for every kid in the state?Rick Dent, a political strategist who was at then-Gov. Zell Miller’s side when plans for Georgia’s pre-k program were being formulated, says it’s decision-making time.
“We’ve dropped from pioneer and national leader to average, so Georgians must decide: Do we invest more money in providing top-quality universal pre-k or do we only provide top-quality pre-k to those students who need it most? Anything in between fails every 4-year-old.”
Lawmakers are mulling several potential options for ensuring the long-term viability, not only of pre-k, but also the arguably more popular HOPE scholarship program that the lottery also funds. Making it even more challenging, they know votes are likely won or lost with each scholarship that’s awarded or cut and each pre-kindergarten slot that opens up or is eliminated.
–By Maureen Downey for the AJC Get Schooled blog