Georgia pre-k programs struggling with budget cuts

As she left work last Tuesday night, Erika Gray looked across busy Woodstock Road in downtown Roswell at a couple of dozen parents sitting patiently in lawn chairs.

They were there when Gray, director of Young Life Academy, started her day, and they planned to camp out overnight. Wednesday was Georgia pre-k registration day at the academy, and the parents were hoping their 4 year olds might have a shot at one of 17 anticipated openings next fall, or at least a top spot on the waiting list.

“We’ve come to expect this,” said Gray, who runs four, 22-student pre-k classes funded by the Georgia lottery.

In a new report out today, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found that, in the last school year, state-funded programs in Georgia and elsewhere struggled to increase access for 4 year olds, to meet arguably minimal standards for quality and to survive major budget cuts.

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Pre-k, nationally, could be described as in a “state of emergency” in the 2011-2012 school year, dealing with “severe and unprecedented” state budget cuts, collectively totaling about $548 million, said W. Steve Barnett, a professor at Rutgers University and director of NIEER, a non-partisan group widely regarded as an authority on early education.

Georgia was long-considered a leader in early education, recognized as the first state to offer pre-k to all 4 year olds, regardless of family income. That ambitious posture drew praise earlier this year from President Barack Obama.

But NIEER said Georgia fell from 19th to 25th, out of 40 states, in state spending between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.

Its per-student funding declined $945, from $4,435 to $3,490, the largest slide in a decade and an amount far less than the $8,609 per child that NIEER projects is needed for a quality program.

The researchers found that, after growing for a decade, enrollment stalled nationally, with about 1.3 million youngsters enrolled in state-funded pre-k programs, nearly 83,000 in Georgia, or about 60 percent of its 4 year olds. Eight thousand 4 year old were on waitings lists in the last school year, and enrollment held steady for a second straight.

Georgia “needs to recommit to being a national leader as its revenues come back,” Barnett said.

As had been anticipated, NIEER lowered the states’s rating on benchmarks of quality from a 10 to an 8, due to an increase in class sizes and a decrease in staff-to-student ratio, both part of $54 million in budget cuts to the program in 2011.

Gov. Nathan Deal said the cuts was necessary to ensure the long-term viability of pre-k and the HOPE scholarship, arguably the state’s two most popular programs, both funded by lottery ticket sales.

Scott Cotter, president of Columbus-based Child Care Network, said the increase in class sizes and lower staff-to-student ratio were preferable to other cuts that were considered, including the possibility of shortening the pre-k day from full-time to part-time.

“That [the reduction of the pre-k day] would have had a much more significant impact on child outcomes,” said Cotter, the largest Georgia pre-k provider with148 classes serving 3,256 students.

In the past two legislative sessions, the governor and legislators have committed more than $20 million to returning the program to 180 days, said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

“As lottery revenues allow, additional quality investments will be considered, including lowering class size and student-to-teacher ratios,” said Cagle, whose duties include oversight of pre-k.

Stephanie Mayfield, spokeswoman for Deal, said that, since 2011, the governor’s budget “has reflected strategic investments in pre-k quality.”

“And we are confident they (NIEER) will improve our ratings again,” Mayfield said.

NIEER’s Barnett said the data makes clear that Georgia needs “a lot more money to ensure that it has a good, quality program.”

He said the president’s proposal to invest $75 billion over the next decade to jumpstart pre-school for low-income students nationwide could “help a state like Georgia.”

“It certainly couldn’t come at a better time in Georgia,” he said. “Although lottery revenues have come back in nominal terms, adjusted for inflation, they are still not back to where they were in real dollars.”

Having the federal money could give Georgia time to re-prioritize and restore its pre-k program to premier status, Barnett said.

Cagle said he is not confident that the president’s proposal will garner enough support, given that it requires a substantial increase in the tax on tobacco products. He said Georgia officials, to get on board with the president’s initiative, would have to know that the “fundamental elements of our programs” would be permitted to continue.

“It would also be essential that the size of our past investments be recognized and considered when allocating funding amongst states,” Cagle said.

Adele Robinson, deputy executive director for policy and public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said early childhood advocates are excited and working hard for the president’s initiative.

“Hopefully, it will pass and (Georgia) will be back on track” with money to reduce class sizes, have the right equipment and provide adequate staff training, she said.

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