Georgia candidates outline plans to improve preschool education

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Stacey Abrams said Georgia should spend some of its budget surplus to expand pre-K

Candidates for state office in Georgia talked about plans, such as getting more children into pre-kindergarten programs and paid family leave, for educating babies and toddlers at an event organized by the state’s main preschool advocacy organization.

It wasn’t a debate — candidates took the stage at Georgia Public Broadcasting one after another — but it was a rare opportunity to hear what leading Georgia politicians have to say about preschool. The issue doesn’t get much attention but is enormously important to parents with young kids, and to the future of those kids themselves.

“We’ve all seen the photos of candidates kissing babies, but do they actually know what those babies need and have a plan for addressing those needs,” Stephanie Blank, the founding chair of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, said as she opened Monday’s election summit.

Democrats Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock attended, as did Richard Woods, the incumbent Republican state school superintendent and his Democratic challenger Alisha Thomas Searcy.

Gov. Brian Kemp, defending his seat against Abrams, told organizers he could not attend because he was dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, which brushed Georgia’s coast last week on its way to South Carolina.

Herschel Walker, who hopes to unseat Warnock but whose campaign is reeling from family conflict, didn’t give a reason for missing the event. Organizers said they’d been trying to get him to come since June.

Abrams had the most detailed plans. She said she wants to expand the number of state-subsidized pre-kindergarten slots, adding 30,000 at a cost of $90 million annually. There are currently about 73,000 children in the program, and a waiting list of approximately 3,200 kids, according to state officials. Abrams said she’d advocate for the legalization of casinos and sports betting to help pay for it, but would also tap the historic surplus in state coffers.

“We will have the revenue going forward to provide the services we need,” she said. “There are billions of dollars in the state of Georgia right now that could be leveraged.”

Kemp has said she would have to raise taxes for her K-12 education proposals, such as raising teacher pay.

Warnock said he wants paid family leave and an extension to the pandemic-related child tax credit.

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Searcy and Woods focused on the quality of K-12 education, the main responsibility of the state superintendent.

Searcy said reading rates under Woods are “a crisis,” with what she said was a 30% proficiency rate in fourth grade. She said the state needs a universal literacy program and that teacher burnout is a contributing factor she would address with higher pay. “We have to address teacher pay in early learning as well as in our K-12 system,” she said.

The Georgia Department of Education reported that 56% of fourth graders scored at or above grade level for reading on their Milestones tests last spring, leaving 44% who did not.

Woods said the agency, under his leadership and per a mandate from the state General Assembly, is rolling out a program to screen young students for dyslexia. And he said it is burnishing an update to the state’s English and reading standards, which dictate what a student should know and be able to do by each grade level.