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Deal keeps full-time pre-K

The Associated Press . Gov. Nathan Deal speaks during a news conference at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. Deal announced his planned changes to HOPE scholarship and the pre-K program. Under Deal's plan, students who earn at least a 3.7 grade point average and a 1,200 SAT score would continue to get free public college tuition.

The Associated Press . Gov. Nathan Deal speaks during a news conference at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011. Deal announced his planned changes to HOPE scholarship and the pre-K program. Under Deal's plan, students who earn at least a 3.7 grade point average and a 1,200 SAT score would continue to get free public college tuition.

ATLANTA - Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday that he's backing off plans to cut the state's nationally lauded pre-kindergarten program from full-time to part-time, a move that critics said would have disrupted the lives of 84,000 4-year-olds and their families, and had the program's quality teachers fleeing.

Instead, Deal said he'll meet the objective of slashing millions of dollars in program spending by cutting the pre-k year from 180 days to 160 days. He'll still expand pre-k enrollment, but by 2,000, not 5,000 students as first proposed two weeks ago.

"We've done a lot of listening over the last two weeks to everybody from public providers, private providers and pre-k teachers," Erin Hames, Deal's deputy chief of staff, said shortly before the governor's news conference. "The greatest concern they all have is with the half-day program. "

Lopping 20 days off the calendar -- which by staff estimates will save about $21 million -- in different economic times might seem extreme. But the k-12 school year calendar has already been cut in many school districts -- in some cases by 20 or more days -- due to the extended economic slump.

The governor has proposed sweeping changes to the popular pre-k and HOPE programs, which are growing faster than the lottery revenues that support them. The changes to HOPE -- including smaller scholarships for all but the very brightest college students -- appeared on the fast track to legislative approval late last week.

But the plan for pre-k, mainly cutting the school day from 6.5 hours to 4 hours, found critics in every camp -- lawmakers, advocates, teachers and parents.

Advocates said a shortened day would go against the national trend and research, showing pre-k helps children be ready for school and can curb the dropout rates and the number of children requiring costly special education services. They also argued that quality teachers would flee the program for full-time employment and that parents, particularly in low-income families, would be overburdened with after-school costs.

Under the governor's revised plan, pre-k will remain a 6.5 hour a day program and will expand to include an extra 2,000 4-year-olds in the fall.