Ashton Aiken reads a book to (from left) Liliana Woods, 4, Carmen Castro, 3 and Eric Revell, 3, at Sheltering Arms International Village Center on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Sheltering Arms International Village Center is one of the few facilities where low-income parents can enjoy quality early childhood education through state subsidies. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia’s limited access to early education causes concern

Most Georgia public school students don’t master reading early enough to give them a strong chance of success the rest of their school careers, a trend that has so alarmed superintendents, CEOs and even former military leaders that they are calling it a threat to the state’s economy and even to national security.

Students are taking the Georgia Milestones tests right now, and last year around this time, as in the years before, nearly two out of three third-graders — close to 90,000 students — failed the English test that includes reading, a crucial skill for learning other subjects in fourth grade and beyond. Research shows that as many as one in six who can’t read proficiently by third grade either drop out or won’t graduate on time. A poor education leads to low pay, a rocky work life and maybe even prison.

There is a growing movement to fix the problem by starting more kids earlier in school, but it hasn’t become a top political issue. Only the two Democratic candidates for governor are talking about the idea.

Long-running studies indicate that schooling from birth through age 3, when the brain is growing fastest, can yield enduring academic, career and even health benefits, especially for children from low-income homes. But it must be high-quality, and it’s unlikely even Georgia, a leader in pre-K, can muster the resources to reproduce at scale the kind of life-altering interventions found in successful small programs, though advocates say any inclusion of more babies and toddlers would help.

The cost of providing an earlier education to all who need it would be considerable. The Pre-K program serves 84,000 Georgia children, about 60 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, at a cost of nearly $370 million a year. There are about a half million Georgia children under age 4, and experts say it’s more expensive to serve them since they need more attention.

This election aside, there is a history in Georgia of bipartisan collaboration on educating kids before kindergarten. Democrats and Republicans worked together to develop a highly-regarded pre-K program open to all. It was founded a quarter century ago by then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, and later embraced by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, who increased the lottery-funded budget by $11 million and raised teacher pay. Deal and other Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, have also increased the state and federal tax dollars, now more than $200 million, that help the low-income working parents of 54,000 children afford preschool and other child care. Deal also developed a quality-rating system to help parents choose a child care program.

Carolyn Tricoche wishes more politicians were talking about it. She has three children, two of them in preschool at Sheltering Arms International Village Center in Chamblee, where she works as a family coach. She earns too much to qualify for the childcare grants. A scholarship cut the price in half, but she still pays about $10,000 a year for her two boys. That leaves roughly $1,100 a month for rent, utilities, food and everything else. The cost is worth it to her: Her daughter, now in sixth grade, attended and was reading proficiently in both English and Spanish by kindergarten.

“It’s really hard to find quality early education at an affordable price,” she said. “We have a lot of single moms out there who don’t know what to do. I see it every day.”

The situation is so dire that former military leaders are sounding an alarm.

Two out of three Georgia children under 6 have a working parent or parents, many of whom cannot afford high-quality child care, says a report from Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan group of more than 700 retired top military leaders. The group believes earlier childhood education could improve national security by helping lay the foundation for men and women who could join the military, and thus improve national security. Educational “deficits,” obesity, criminal records or drug abuse are disqualifying three out of four Georgians between the ages of 17 and 24 from military service.

A Mission: Readiness member from Marietta, retired Rear Adm. Casey Coane, said too many parents must settle for low-quality day care that is stunting their children’s development and Georgia’s economy.

“If 73 percent of Georgians can’t qualify for the military, they also can’t qualify for a lot of the jobs that we need them to do,” he said.

Georgia’s pre-K program, which is open to all, has produced promising results. Despite a relatively high ratio of up to 22 students per teacher, low-income students who attended are doing better in the early elementary grades than predicted.

study funded by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning found the students showed significant growth in learning during their pre-K year. One of the authors, Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a University of North Carolina researcher, said it’s likely that extending the program to younger children would produce better results. She had a caveat, though: it must be high-quality preschool, with smaller class sizes. “You need to invest enough resources.”

The cost for high-quality preschool could easily exceed $7,000 a year per child. If most of the half million Georgians under age 4 were enrolled, the price might be in the billions of dollars. That’s why no one is pushing for a program that covers the entire cost for all children, said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.

“Beyond the money, which would be ridiculous, there would be lots of reasons why that would be impractical,” she said. For instance, with pre-K, not all parents choose to participate, many preferring to leave their child with a family member or to enroll in a private program that isn’t taking the public funding. That’s why Binderman is pushing for subsidies on a sliding scale based on family income.

2014 poll by Binderman’s group found that 68 percent of likely voters supported an expansion of state funding for child care subsidies for low-income working parents. Only 49 percent of likely Republican voters were in favor, though, compared with 87 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents.

That may explain why the GOP candidates for governor have ceded the issue to Democrats.

“It’s not an issue that would necessarily excite their base,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.

Democrat Stacey Evans wants to pay for all children to attend preschool, but only starting at age 2. Her campaign said she would fund it with cuts elsewhere and with state lottery money, which is already stretched by the cost of pre-K and college scholarships. She didn’t give a price tag.

Stacey Abrams would start at birth and would allocate $300 million, her campaign said. She’d get the money through more thorough sales tax collections and the elimination of a $100 million tax-credit program for K-12 private school scholarships, “along with evaluation and repurposing of other tax breaks that are not effectively serving public purposes.”

The major Republican candidates say education is important, but they are focusing on older children. They’re all for school “choice,” which generally means funding for public charter schools and for private school scholarships. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is leading in the polls, said he would “break through the outdated models of education delivery” but didn’t say whether that means he would or would not expand preschool. “We’re seeing more and more evidence that early childhood education sets the path — for good or ill — for our students,” he said.

Mission: Readiness sought interviews with all major gubernatorial candidates and got four of the Republicans. Coane, the retired rear admiral, participated in the talks with three of them — Hunter Hill, Michael Williams and Cagle. To Coane, they seemed “supportive” of early childhood education, if concerned about the cost. “I think our Republicans in Georgia understand the issue,” said Coane, himself a Republican and married to a retired high school English teacher. “I just frankly think their campaign managers want them talking about tax cuts.”

School systems aren’t waiting on the state.

City Schools of Decatur has for years been operating a center that serves children from birth through pre-K. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Atlanta Regional Commission are working with superintendents, corporations and nonprofits to raise third-grade reading levels. One of their strategies is to expand early childhood education.

“The question is, how do we get there now. How do we find the funding,” said Kevin Greiner, the president and CEO of Gas South, one of the leaders of the initiative. “It’s all a question of priorities,” he said, adding, “it’s also thinking about how do you do this politically.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is creating a position at city hall for an education director, said in December that the new aide would focus on early childhood education and vocational training. Atlanta school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, echoing a study that found that children who aren’t reading by third grade are four times less likely to finish high school on time, said parents with money can find quality care for their babies and toddlers. Their kids are ready for kindergarten, but parents without the means are struggling to find quality care.

“It’s got to change,” she said, “or this state is in trouble.”

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