Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, met with the AJC a few weeks ago and talked about his first 18 months in the job.
“What we do is setting the stage for the future success of the children we serve. And that is the economic engine that is going to drive us in future years,” he said during the hour long session.
Pre-k began as a pilot 20 years ago with 750 4-years-olds from low-income Georgia families. Today, the program serves more than 84,000 children. Now open to all 4-year-olds regardless of household income, the program has waiting lists in many areas of the state.
Pre-k is funded by the Georgia Lottery, which also underwrites the HOPE Scholarship. A new report by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute questions the funding ratio used to dispense lottery dollars to pre-k and HOPE. The study cautions:
Georgia’s reputation as a leader in early childhood education is slipping away. Despite an abundance of evidence that early learning is a key to success later in life, particularly for low-income and at-risk youth, recent spending cuts mean Georgia’s Pre-Kindergarten program will serve 2,000 fewer children in the coming school year. Class sizes have grown, the school year has been shortened and Pre-K centers have less money to work with.
Pre-K, like HOPE scholarships for college students, is funded with revenue from the Georgia Lottery.
However, HOPE’s increasing cost threatens the viability of both programs. In recent years, Pre-K has
typically received about one-third of annual lottery dollars set aside for education. For 2011, a total of $1.1
billion was allocated, with Pre-K receiving $332.7 million and HOPE getting the rest.
These lottery dollars funded 84,300 Pre-K slots across Georgia’s 159 counties, with an average cost of $3,947 per pupil. The funding per slot varies across counties and is based on location, teacher credential, type of provider (public versus private), and the number of students. Pre-K funding has been cut by $56 million since 2011, resulting in fewer Pre-K slots, larger classroom sizes, and a shorter school year.
Among Cagle’s comments during his meeting with the AJC:
•His agency is embarking on a voluntary quality ratings system of child care centers in the state. They have 777 centers volunteering to be rated under a star system. The agency is using the University of North Carolina experts to create the system. “We are aiming to make this the best quality rating system in the country,” he said.
•Cagle used his emergency power to shut down centers five times in the last year. “I don’t want to put a small business out of business, but, at the same time, what comes first is children’s safety,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of quality we provide in pre-k if we don’t get health and safety right.”
•His agency has also increased its use of fines, using them in excess of 50 percent above the prior year. The agency also had a 44 percent increase in licensing revocations. “Our goal to work with these centers to improve this. We don’t think there is adequate supply of quality centers the way it is,” he said
•The first thing he heard on his new job — cut $100 million. As an alternative to cutting pre-k classes to half day, his agency supported a compromise: Class sizes increased from 20 to 22 students and the school year was shortened from 180 days to 160.
“What that has done is make this a less attractive teaching position,” said Cagle. Now, the state has added back 10 days to stem the exodus of pre-k teachers unhappy with their reduced paychecks.
“The governor’s goal is to add back all 20 days and bring down number of students to 20 students,” he said. “But it took $7 million to add back 10 days, so it will take an additional $7 million to add the remaining 10 days.” Cagle said his first priority would be adding back the additional days to keep teachers and then take on bringing down class sizes.
•With the rise in class size, Cagle expects Georgia to slip in national quality ratings. Georgia is ranked 4th in the nation in the number of children who have access to the program and is covering 60 percent of all 4-years-old in the state. “We have something in our program to be very, very proud of,” Cagle said.
•He cited a comment from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke that every dollar invested in early childhood education yields $10. Cagle also said research shows that pre-k benefits kids from all households. (Some research has suggested middle-class kid fare as well in school without a foundation of pre-k since their home life offers enrichment and education.)
•Why aren’t all low-income kids taking advantage of free pre-k? “I think that it could be just awareness,” he said. “Even after 20 years, there are parents who aren’t aware. ”
•Pre-k now serves 84,000 students. There are waiting lists in most counties around the state. At last count, the waiting list had 8,000 children.
•On a funding system that favors HOPE over pre-k, Cagle said:
“It is wrong to pit HOPE and pre-k against the other. Both are positive programs. The funding is a policy debate for legislators and governors. They have determined this is the way to do it.”
•Cagle’s response to critics of the state’s budget reductions who want to see early childhood education opportunities expanded to low-income 3-year-olds:
“I think they need to be reminded that we are in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Maintaining what we have maintained is something the state can be very proud of. Should we be moving in the direction they are talking about? Yes, but how we get there is another question. All citizens need to weigh in on this with their legislators and governor’s office.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog