Gov. Nathan Deal wants to spend $50 million next year to start reversing changes he engineered to a lottery-funded early-childhood program aimed at keeping HOPE programs from going bankrupt that also led to waves of teachers leaving pre-kindergarten classes and tarnished its national reputation.
The governor said in an interview that the specifics are still in the works but that the funding would reduce class sizes in pre-k programs and increase the salaries for teachers and assistant teachers.
“We all know the statistics indicate a good pre-k program is the best starting point we can have for children in schools,” he said. “Class size and teacher compensation are critical components for being able to have an effective and responsible pre-k program.”
The governor pushed lawmakers in 2011 to restructure pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs to keep them financially afloat as they struggled increasing demand. The pre-k school year was cut by 20 days, and the maximum size of classrooms was raised from 20 to 22 students.
A 180-day calendar has since been restored, but class sizes remain the same. And advocates have long called for smaller classrooms and higher teacher pay to improve the quality of early childhood education.
Deal plans to get the funding to increase teacher pay and cut class sizes from an enticing pot of money known as the unrestricted lottery reserve fund. The fund had roughly $350 million by the end of 2014, after growing about $60 million a year the past three years. It is separate from the $460 million in lottery reserves that, by law, cannot be touched.
A reserve retreat
The governor has resisted calls to dip into the fund in the past — he said during his 2014 re-election campaign that “it’s not wise” to take from the fund in case of an economic downturn — but he’s changed his tune ahead of a new debate over lottery-funded education programs.
“The scare we’ve seen just this past week with the stock market is a reminder that we always should err on the side of being cautious,” he said in the interview Friday. “But when we do have the money available, we need to do what we can to spend it wisely.”
The shift comes as lawmakers prepare to debate a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling, which supporters say would infuse a new surge of cash into Georgia’s scaled-back pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs. Deal opposes the expansion of gambling, but he said he may not veto the legislation if voters support it in a referendum.
The specifics of his plan for a $50 million pre-kindergarten infusion will be honed by an education reform commission that he appointed after his re-election. The panel’s members have already begun to debate whether to boost the pay of pre-k teachers with advanced college degrees.
Early childhood education experts welcome Deal’s decision. Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said the state’s national reputation as a leader in early education was “severely damaged” as days were cut, class sizes were increased and experienced teachers fled.
The program has yet to recover while early childhood education systems in states such as Alabama, North Carolina and even Mississippi held steady or moved forward, he said. But he said Deal’s proposal to add an additional $50 million would “help restore Georgia’s reputation, and, more importantly, restore quality so that children and taxpayers gain from this investment.”
The pre-k program still has trouble holding on to its teachers. The program keeps about 75 percent of its teachers, down from 83 percent in fiscal 2012, when the brunt of the cuts took effect.
Early childhood education advocates have long urged Deal to find money in the reserve fund to increase pre-k teacher pay and decrease class size to help needy families who don’t have access to quality early care.
“I am agnostic on where the funding comes from,” said Mindy Binderman, the executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. “But using lottery reserves is the logical choice.”
Some Democrats want Deal to tap the lottery reserve for a different purpose.
Changes to the HOPE grant program in 2011 hiked the required grade-point average for technical college students to keep the tuition award and reduce the payments. Nearly 6,000 students who lost their grants bolted from schools in the years after the change.
Lawmakers approved a new grant named after former Gov. Zell Miller two years ago to cover the full tuition of tech students who earn at least a 3.5 GPA, which is awarded to about 14,500 students. That leaves an additional 67,000 students on the HOPE grant, and many get roughly 75 percent of their tuition covered by the program.
State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, wants the state to cover the rest of the gap. She’s met several times with the governor and his aides about taking roughly $23 million from the unrestricted reserve fund to restore full tuition funding for the grant recipients.
The new funding would only amount to a matter of a few hundred dollars a semester for most tech school students, she said, but that could be the deciding factor for many students struggling to make ends meet.
“The difference in funding is sometimes only $400 or $500, and it’s the difference between completing a program and someone not completing it,” Evans said. “And anything we can do to drive more people into the doors of a technical college is going to result in more people in unfilled jobs.”
She pointed to strong lottery proceeds - the program’s profits for state education programs recently set a record for the fourth consecutive year - as a sign that Deal doesn’t have to choose between the two programs.
“With the lottery posting record proceeds, we can responsibly do both,” said Evans.
The governor, though, signaled in the interview that he was wary of dipping deeper into the reserve funds for the HOPE grant program. He pointed to a workforce development initiative that pays the full tuition for grant recipients pursuing high-demand fields, such as welding and movie production.
“Rather than just using our money across the board,” he said, “I think it’s more appropriate to focus on areas where they can get jobs.”