Statewide, 35.6 percent of public pre-k teachers left, while private providers lost 25.4 percent of their teachers, according to state data.
The exodus followed the decision by Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers to cut the program from 180 days to 160 for the current school year, a move that also translated into about a 10 percent salary reduction for pre-k teachers.
At the time, it seemed a more palatable alternative to Deal's original recommendation: cut the pre-k day from full-time to part-time to bolster the long-term viability of the program as well as the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.
In his 2013 budget, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, Deal has pushed for adding back 10 of the 20 school days and about 4.4 percent of what the teachers lost in pay. In exchange, last year's plan to expand potential enrollment to 86,000 4-year-olds is being shelved. So far, lawmakers haven't objected to Deal's plans.
"No question, we created a problem and one that folks didn't think about," state Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, said of the steep teacher turnover. "It was one of those unintended consequences."
One of the pre-k teachers who left was Trina Mullis, an 11-year teaching veteran from Griffin, who was looking at a potential $5,000 annual salary cut with credit for her years and master's degree.
Mullis moved into a second-grade class and has no plans to return to pre-k.
"I just felt pre-k was too unstable at that point and was going to turn into a revolving door for teachers who just graduated," she said.
Muscogee County School Superintendent Susan Andrews said she isn't expecting veteran teachers to come back until all 20 days are restored.
“With increasing health insurance costs and increasing contributions to teacher retirement, teachers have to take care of themselves financially," Andrews said.
In her system, 46 percent of the pre-k teachers left after the cuts were announced.
Bobby Cagle, commissioner of DECAL, said it may be too early to tell how former teachers will respond. "It depends on what kind of jobs they left for," he said.
In addition to the salary cuts, extra pay for training and experience was eliminated for new teachers and frozen for current ones, Cagle said.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said the governor’s decision to restore 10 days will help the program.
“But [it] does not go far enough to repair a badly damaged reputation," Barnett said. “Weakening the program to serve more children actually reduces the return to the taxpayer because quality for the most disadvantaged is much more important than quantity."
Deal decided to add 2,000 slots to the program at the same time he cut the school year. Though there's a waiting list of about 7,000 4-year-olds, most of the new slots weren't used because they weren't in areas where the need was, DECAL officials said.
Stephanie Mayfield, spokeswoman for Deal, said the governor is committed to the program.
"He has been very clear throughout this process [about] the importance he places on early learning and ensuring that there are high quality teachers in Georgia's pre-k classrooms," she said. "Increasing the school year and pre-k teacher salaries will continue to be a priority for the governor as we move forward."
Carolyn Salvador, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association, said the governor's plan to add back the 10 days should have "a very positive impact" on improving the learning environment for students in pre-k.
"Unfortunately, during the last 16 years, the state investment in our 4-year-olds has declined," Salvador said. The program will spend $3,561 per student in the next fiscal year, compared with $4,136 per student in 1996, she said.
"No one wants quality to suffer," she said. "But certainly we can’t expect our schools to deliver the same results with fewer resources each year."
Ashe said lawmakers need to work to restore all 20 days to the program, but have to do more as well.
"When we finally get around to being very serious about early education, we're going to have to decouple pre-k from [the lottery-funded] HOPE [scholarship], she said. "It's a collision course for resources between HOPE and pre-k."
Pre-k changes made for 2011-2012
--The school year was shortened from 180 to 160 days.
--Class size was increased to 22 students from 20. (Since all pre-k classes have a paraprofessional in the room, the student to teacher ratio will max out at 11 to 1.) This cut 270 classrooms.
--An additional 2,000 pre-k slots were added, allowing a potential enrollment of 86,000.
--Providers received 94 percent of the operating funds they received in 2010-11.
--Pre-k teachers received 90 percent of their last year's salaries. (The original half-day proposal by Gov. Nathan Deal called for a a 30 percent reduction.) In 2010-2011, pre-k teachers, like most teachers, had six unpaid furlough days.
--Public school pre-k teachers had their pay differential for training and experience frozen indefinitely. It was discontinued for new hires.
Pre-k changes recommended for 2012-2013
-- The school year will go from 160 days to 170 days, still 10 days short.
-- Pre-k slots will stay at 84,000. The 2,000 extra slots planned have been eliminated.
-- Class size remains at 22.
-- Providers receive 94 percent of the operating funds they received in 2010-11.
-- About 7,000 children are on a waiting list for the program.
Source: Georgia Bright From the Start
About Georgia pre-kindergarten
Funding source: the Georgia Lottery Corp.
Launch date: 1993
Available slots for 4-year-olds: 46,486 in private programs, 37,808 in public programs
Classes in 2010-2011: 4,215 with 20 students per classroom.
Classes in 2011-2012: 3,877 with 22 students per classroom.
Classes in 2012-2013 projected: 3,900 classes with 22 students per class.