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Expansion of Pre-K Program - Let's Educate all 4-Year-Olds
Southern Education Foundation 2008 Pre-K Study
The Promise of Georgia Pre-K from the Southern Education Foundation
In 1993, Georgia Governor Zell Miller established a voluntary pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) program for four-year-old children from low income families. Georgia became the first state to fund pre-kindergarten with lottery revenues. In 1995, after Governor Miller and the state legislature expanded Pre-K eligibility, Georgia became the first state in the nation to promise a universal, voluntary program to all four-year-old children whose parents wanted it. Shortly afterward, the state began leading all other states in Pre-K growth and enrollment.
Georgia’s Pre-K program became a model that other states followed. By the late 1990s, Georgia had the largest program in the country and one of the most comprehensive. It also had a unique system of educational delivery involving both public and private agencies to provide public Pre-K. In addition, Georgia developed a program with high-quality standards and provided support to local agencies to help meet them.
In fact, more than any other state, Georgia has helped to inspire and lead America in developing an age appropriate, early-learning movement for four-year-old children that promises to help future generations and the nation to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
In recent years, however, Georgia has begun to fall behind other states and to lose its national leadership in Pre-K. Today there are other states with larger rates of Pre-K enrollment, faster rates of growth, more comprehensive programs, stronger standards for high-quality, and larger per child investments. While it remains in 2008 one of the nation’s better programs, Georgia’s Pre-K program is in danger of being out-distanced by the early learning movement it started.
Pre-K Enrollment and Access
Current Pre-K enrollment across Georgia is little more than 50 percent of the state’s four-year-olds. There are many counties, especially in Metro Atlanta and north Georgia, where enrollment rates are lower. In addition, when measured against the state’s voluntary educational program for five-year-olds, Georgia Pre-K enrollment is only 58 percent of kindergarten enrollment. The data quantify what annual waiting lists and waiting lines across the state illustrate: high-quality Pre-K is not available to all four-year-olds whose parents want it in Georgia.
High-Quality Pre-K Programs
Georgia Pre-K, as currently designed, has produced strong results for school readiness. The program’s original standards for high-quality were state-of-the-art in earlier years. The design has enabled many children to develop new knowledge and skills. But in recent years meaningful gaps have emerged in the program design and quality that may undermine Georgia Pre-K’s long-term impact. Primarily, Georgia Pre-K needs to understand and better implement ways to improve the learning skills of low income students.
Pre-K Resources for Each Student
During the last ten years, Georgia Pre-K has not kept up with the cost of delivering a high-quality program to each student. After adjustments for inflation, Pre-K resources for each child in Georgia have actually declined since 1999. In constant 2007 dollars, Georgia Pre-K expenditures per child were approximately $4,478 in 1998 and only $4,010 in 2007. This trend endangers the capacity of Pre-K providers to deliver on the promise of high-quality Pre-K.
Educational Benefits of Georgia Pre-K
Children from Georgia Pre-K are more school-ready than any other group of students when they reach kindergarten. Pre-K students carry the bulk of their learning gains forward into higher grades. All groups of children make important gains. While the program is not yet as powerful as it could be for low income students, Georgia Pre-K has become an essential first step to help children start school-ready and achieve at higher levels later.
Economic Benefits of Georgia Pre-K
Research shows that Georgia would realize enough reduced government costs in current programs relating to juvenile justice, welfare, education, and crime prevention by the year 2027 to exceed the annual cost of funding a truly universal, high-quality Georgia Pre-K.
Within little more than 40 years, the state government alone could receive $1.59 in annual savings and tax revenues for every dollar that Georgia Pre-K spends. In addition, the number of new jobs that would come about by improving the state’s human capital through investments in universal, high-quality Georgia Pre-K would more than double what the same size of investments in direct economic development subsidies could achieve over a span of 75 years. In short, high-quality Pre-K currently ranks above all options as Georgia’s best means for saving tax dollars and spurring economic investment over time.
Making It Happen Again
Georgia is fortunate to have the means to build a truly universal, high-quality Pre-K program during the next few years. As a lottery-supported enterprise of state government, Georgia Pre-K has never depended on tax revenues and the state’s fluctuating budget cycles to grow. As of mid-2007, the latest reported period, the lottery reserve fund had a balance of $879.1 million, which consisted of $309.5 million earmarked by the state legislature to cover any unexpected need for increased funding of HOPE scholarships and $569.6 million as an unrestricted reserve fund of lottery revenues.
Now Is the Time
Georgia has both the need and the means to move forward to have the first, truly universal, high-quality Pre-K program in America. Much more than just a national ranking is at stake. Georgia needs to regain national leadership because the future of many of the state’s children, families, communities, and the state’s economy as a whole will depend on the educational and economic benefits of high-quality Pre-K.
In addition to expanding Georgia Pre-K enrollment, SEF recommends further examination and improvement of curriculum standards and professional development, provision of resource coordinators to promote greater parental engagement, reconsideration of lead teacher credential requirements, and efforts to pilot outreach and services to three-year-olds. Research and educational experience now confirm that early learning is a key strategy for educational achievement and for developing lasting habits of mind that help children become productive adults.
This is the promise of Georgia Pre-K, a promise that the State of Georgia now needs to keep.