Georgia, pioneer in pre-K programs, no longer blazing trail

The National Institute for Early Education Research says Georgia now ranks eighth among states in the percentage of 4-year-olds served in pre-kindergarten programs.
The National Institute for Early Education Research says Georgia now ranks eighth among states in the percentage of 4-year-olds served in pre-kindergarten programs.

Georgia’s leadership on preschool is slipping, according to a new report that compares states based on their funding for pre-K.

“Georgia did not add to enrollment and is no longer among the very top states for the percentage of 4-year-olds served, ranking 8th,” says the National Institute for Early Education Research.

In its latest annual report, "The State of Preschool 2018," the organization used 2017-18 data to determine that a third of 4-year-olds and 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled in public preschool programs nationally. There were 1.6 million enrolled, and Georgia, 43 other states and Washington, D.C. spent more than $8.1 billion on them, up 3.5% in inflation-adjusted dollars but a decline in the amount per child, meaning low pay for teachers.

NIEER, which is based at Rutgers University, looked at enrollment, spending and policies. The group also measures quality, calling effective pre-school a long-term investment in a foundation for future learning. Research indicates that brains grow fastest before kindergarten. It’s a key time for language development, which is a foundation for reading. And reading is key for success in any subject.

Ten states enroll at least half of their 4-year-olds, the report said.

Georgia is among them, serving more than 80,000 — around 60 percent of 4-year-olds, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year. NIEER reports that from 2016-17 enrollment fell by 338 to 80,536 and funding dropped more than $5 million. The amount per child dropped to $4,411, from $4,463, putting Georgia at 27th, the report says.

Georgia has had a highly-regarded program with bipartisan support. It was founded a quarter century ago by 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 available to 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.

There still aren’t enough seats where parents need them, advocates say.

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 by Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan group of more than 700 retired top military leaders. The group believes early childhood education could improve national security by making more men and women eligible for military service. Three out of four young Georgians are disqualified by poor educations, health issues and behavioral problems, the group said.

The Georgia Association for the Education of Young Children equates early childhood education with basic services, such as water and power, arguing that it helps children do better in school and boosts the economy by freeing parents to work.

“Their income, as well as the income of those providing quality care also flow back into the communities. It’s a win for the children but really it is for all of us,” the group said.

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