National preschool report: Georgia shows little growth in pre-k enrollment

The National Institute for Early Education Research released its State of Preschool Yearbook for 2016. Georgia meets most of the standards in the yearbook, although falls short of the recommendation of no more than 20 children in a class. Georgia allows 22 students.

Georgia spent $3,891 per pre-k student in 2016; the national average was $4,967.  The report notes that while Georgia is spending more money on its pre-k, largely by right-sizing teacher salaries, it has not significantly expanded the program to create more seats.

According to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, 5,000 students across the state are waiting to get into pre-k, which is voluntary for families and tuition-free. This year, for example, DeKalb County has 556 kids on wait lists, while Fulton has 553 and Gwinnett has 460.

One issue is a lack of space for pre-k classrooms. A bill that would have addressed funding for more pre-k classrooms did not advance this legislative session.

In its detailed account of Georgia, the National Institute for Early Education Research finds:

Total spending for the 2015-2016 school year was $317 million, an increase of $5.8 million over the 2014-2015 school year. The program received funding to operate 60 additional Summer Transition programs during the 2015-2016 school year. In 2014-2015, the budget included a one percent increase in salary for both lead and assistant teachers, as well as a one-time payment to Georgia’s preschool providers for investment in new curriculum, classroom technology and refurbishment, and professional development opportunities. The review was conducted to update the list of approved comprehensive curricula to be used in Georgia’s preschool classrooms. The preschool budget for the 2016-2017 school year includes an additional approximately $36.4 million. This increase was appropriated in the state budget for lead and assistant teacher salaries.

A new salary scale was also developed for preschool lead teachers based on years of experience to continue to support salary parity between preschool teachers and K-12 teachers. In 2011, the Georgia General Assembly funded a multi-year evaluation of the program. The evaluation is being conducted by researchers from Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Data on the first two phases of the study have been released and demonstrate significant gains for children participating in the program across all domains of learning. Currently, the researchers are following a representative sample of children who attended Georgia’s Preschool Program through third grade. Results from the preschool and kindergarten year have been released. In addition to these evaluations, DECAL also has commissioned studies related to professional development for Georgia’s Preschool Program teachers and summer transition.

Here is the official release on Georgia:

Georgia, which in 1992 launched the nation’s first state-funded universal preschool program, now enrolls 60 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, according to the 2016 State of Preschool Yearbook released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

The State of Preschool Yearbook is the only national report on state-funded preschool programs with detailed information on enrollment, funding, teacher qualifications, and other policies related to quality. Decades of research shows that early childhood education can prepare children for greater success in elementary school and beyond, with benefits largest for the most disadvantaged — but only if quality is high.

Georgia enrolled 80,825 4-year-olds in preschool, a slight increase from 2014-2015.

Nationwide, state-funded preschool program enrollment reached an all-time high, serving nearly 1.5 million children, 32 percent of 4-year-olds and five percent of 3-year-olds. State funding for preschool rose eight percent to about $7.4 billion, a $550 million increase. State funding per child increased five percent to $4,967, exceeding pre-recession levels for the first time. Five states met all 10 current quality standards benchmarks. Nine states had programs that met fewer than half; and seven states do not fund preschool at all.

“Early childhood education is a great investment,” said NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D. “We see Georgia continuing to meet most quality standards benchmarks but more work is needed to increase funding to provide the high-quality pre-K that helps children get the best possible start in life.”

In Georgia:

  • Total state funding was $314,460,869 in 2015-2016, an increase of $1.8 million from 2014-2015
  • Georgia’s universal Pre-K Program served 80,825 children, increasing by 395 children from 2014-2015, ranking 8th in access for 4-year-olds out of 44 states
  • State funding per child had only a small increase ($4) from 2014-2015 to $3,891, ranking 28th nationwide
  • Georgia met eight of NIEER’s 10 current quality standards benchmarks
  • A recent study found Georgia's program to have lasting effects, revealing significant improvements in classroom quality for Georgia's Pre-K teachers who participated in professional development
  • Additional state funding supported 60 additional Summer Transition Programs statewide for children entering kindergarten

Current benchmarks were designed to help states build programs, focusing on resources and policies related to the structural aspects of public pre-K— elements needed for a high-quality program but not fully defining one. This year, NIEER is introducing major revisions to the policy benchmarks for the first time since the Yearbook was launched in 2003. The new benchmarks raise the bar by focusing on policies that more directly support continuous improvement of classroom quality. State profiles in the 2016 Yearbook include both current and new benchmark scores.

Georgia met six of the new benchmarks, meeting new requirements for early learning and development standards that are culturally sensitive, supported, and aligned with other state standards and supports for curriculum implementation. However, current policies fell short of benchmarks requiring professional development and ongoing coaching for lead and assistant teachers, and a continuous quality improvement system.

“States meeting current benchmarks should be proud of their accomplishments,” Dr. Barnett concluded. “But simply meeting the benchmarks does not guarantee children are receiving a high-quality classroom experience. Research indicates most states need to do more to ensure high quality for every child.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.