Georgia pre-k program lifts students, study says

A first-of-its kind study of Georgia pre-kindergarten program is nearly complete, and early reports indicate it shows largely good news about the program that has enrolled about 1.2 million youngsters in 20 years.

The study, which cost $1.5 million in lottery dollars, not tax dollars, was launched at the request of lawmakers two years ago amid dire predictions about the long-term viability of the lottery-funded pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs, arguably the state’s two most popular initiatives.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute followed a random sample of pre-k students during the 2011-2012 school year, using pre- and post-tests to measure how much the 4-year-olds learned and classroom observations and teacher surveys to assess classroom quality.

State officials have seen some early data from the researchers, said Kristin Bernhard, education policy adviser to Gov. Nathan Deal. By almost every measure — including language and mathematics — the researchers found that students who went through Georgia pre-k fared better than their national peers, Bernhard said.

Former state Senate Education Committee Chairman Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said the researchers’ findings are critical.

“It is extremely important that the people understand that this pre-k program is not baby-sitting, that it is preparing young people for school, and that it makes a difference on achievement at the end of the day,” Millar said. “I believe it’s very important that each member of the General Assembly receive at least an executive summary of this report so they see how important this program is for the future.”

Deal has announced plans to ask lawmakers during the current legislative session to return Georgia pre-k to a 180-day-a-year program for the 2013-2014 school year.

The program year was shortened to 160 days during the 2011 legislative session among the grim forecasts, sparking a mass exodus of mostly veteran pre-k teachers who said they could not afford an accompanying pay cut of nearly 10 percent. The governor added back 1o of the 20 days last year by dropping plans to open the program, which serves about 84,000 4-year-olds, to an additional 2,000 students.

This year, lawmakers will be asked to restore the remaining 10 days based on the Georgia Lottery Corp.’s banner year, with $3.8 billion in ticket sales. That provided $900 million for HOPE and pre-k, $55 million more than the previous year. HOPE scholars will benefit as well, the governor has said.

Georgia has been considered a nation leader in early childhood education as the first state to offer pre-k to all children regardless of family income. The program is funded almost exclusively from about one-third of lottery proceeds, including $301 million in 2011-2012 and $299 million in 2012-2013.

Susan Adams, the assistant commissioner for pre-k at Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said the longitudinal study being conducted by the North Carolina researchers is “one of only a handful of studies” of its type that have been done in the country.

But there have been other studies, including two by researchers from Georgia State University, one from 1996 to 2001 and one from 2001 to 2004, Adams said.

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