I just came from a meeting with state early childhood advocates, including Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start-Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, and Stanley DeJarnett, former superintendent of Morgan County Schools and a member of the Vision for Public Education in Georgia, a joint project of the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
They talked about the return on money invested into pre-k, with Willis noting that one analysis contends the investment in early learning can pay off more in economic development than an auto plant. “There aren’t any do-overs in early childhood learning,” she said. “If you miss the boat, it is going to cost you more later.”
Voices has declared this Georgia Pre-k week and has commitments from 107 lawmakers to visit pre-ks to better understand that the lottery-funded program is not “glorified” babysitting but a foundational educational component.
The tours are a pre-emptive strike against further cuts to pre-k this next year, as the state again confronts slumping lottery returns. (The Georgia Lottery funds HOPE and pre-k.) Now, about 60 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in Georgia attend a pre-k in either a public school or a private setting on lottery dollars.
The advocates want the AJC to write about the value of early childhood education. I see the value in early childhood education, but I am not sure that view is widely held in the Legislature. The research is consistent that early childhood learning is a boon to low-income kids, but not as essential to middle and upper income children whose own parents and homes provide education-rich environments.
That distinction is one reason why some lawmakers are skeptical. Their reasoning is that their kids didn’t go to pre-k and did fine in school.
And that was probably true because their kids had parents who read to them and talked to them. But, as Cagle noted, low-income kids get far less exposure to language and arrive at school at a disadvantage as a result. (He cited a sign he saw in a child care center that said, “Ask me about my diaper change,” an effort to prod parents to even talk to their infants.)
Among the differences cited by the research:
Cagle described the evolution that he has seen in his child care career, from treating child care centers as places to tend young kids while parents worked to a critical element in the learning continuum that sets students up to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Cagle said he came to Georgia not to maintain the child care system, “but to improve it.”
Of course, that task has become harder with state cuts. Faced with the slippage in lottery funds and rising demands, Gov. Nathan Deal originally planned to reduce pre-k from full to half-day but deferred to advocates and shortened the school year instead. One unfortunate result has been that certified teachers in school-based pre-k programs have taken jobs in the k-12 system rather than lose pay due to the abbreviated schedule. (A few systems used their own money to replace the lost days, but most did not.)
Cagle is hoping that Georgia will win a Race to the Top Early Childhood grant of $70 million to fund improvements to the system, and Georgia interviews for the grant next week.
“We are kind of an underdog,” said Cagle. “People don’t know what we have done here.” One of those things, he said, was pioneer early learning standards.
As to this next year, Cagle said, “I’m not looking for any increases, but I have not heard anything about any more cuts.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog