Georgia's lottery-funded Pre-K gets top rating in national report

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program moved into the top echelon of the nation’s pre-k programs in terms of quality in 2011 but could soon fall back out of it due to new cutbacks, a national report due out today shows.

In its State of Preschool 2011 Yearbook, the National Institute for Early Education Research gave Georgia its first 10 out of 10 in measures of quality, citing a new mandate that pre-k teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Only five of 39 state pre-k programs met all 10 quality standards for 2010-2011.

NIEER’s report also predicts Georgia’s quality rating will fall next year because of decisions by the governor and Legislature to cut 20 days from the pre-k school year and to increase class sizes by two students for the current school year.

Teachers, who were facing the prospect of 10 percent pay cuts, quit the program in record numbers between the legislative session’s end in spring 2011 and the start of this school year. Gov. Nathan Deal pushed through a proposal in the recent General Assembly session to restore 10 of the 20 days for the next school year.

Pat Willis, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, said the NIEER report shows the quality of the state’s program was improving.

“We hit a high point, but we’re coming back down,” Willis said. “So we know what makes an effective program. It just raises the question of whether we’re committed to it.”

Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start: the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said the state’s pre-k program is expected to score an 8 in NIEER’s 2012 quality rankings.

“It’s still good, but not where we want to be,” Cagle said. “Our goal is to get back to 10 as quickly as possible.”

Georgia’s pre-k program serves about 84,000 4-year-olds annually.

With Georgia’s adoption of a college degree requirement in the 2010-2011 school year, more than half of the nation’s pre-k programs now require that their lead teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Cagle’s agency says about 93 percent of Georgia pre-k teachers meet the new standard.

“I don’t see how it can be anything but good,” said Cindy Vail, an associate professor and associate department head at the University of Georgia.

“I think it’s important that the public understand that we need teachers in these classrooms — that it’s not just daycare, baby-sitting. Until we professionalize the system and up the quality of our child care, we’re just doing our nation a disservice.”

NIEER assesses programs based on 10 quality benchmarks, such as class sizes of 20 students or less, staff training and early learning standards.

Nationally, funding for state pre-k programs has fallen in a decade by $715 per student, when adjusted for inflation, and by $145 per student in 2010-2011 alone, said W. Steven Barnett, longtime director of NIEER, a nonpartisan center at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“Parents would be outraged if we had such low expectations for the first grade or kindergarten,” Barnett said. “As economic conditions improve, states need to provide more adequate funding, step up quality, and make pre-k available to all children.”

Georgia spends about $4,300 per child, more than the national average. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than a decade ago and less than half of what the state spends per student in kindergarten through 12th grade, NIEER found.

The state needs an additional source of revenue to sustain its leadership position in pre-k, Barnett said.

Georgia was considered a forerunner in early education when, in the 1990s, with some of the proceeds from the Georgia lottery, it created the nation’s first universal pre-kindergarten program open, space permitted, to any 4-year-old. There’s routinely a waiting list for the program, which costs about $355 million annually.

So far there has not been any long-term study of its benefits, though national researchers say the programs are worthwhile.

Last year, Deal recommended deep cuts to pre-k, as well as to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program for college students, saying they were necessary to assure the programs’ long-term viability. He initially wanted to cut pre-k from a full-day to a half-day program, something child advocates vehemently opposed.

After the decision was made to increase class sizes, cut 20 days and teacher pay by 10 percent, the fallout was the departure of a dramatic 35.6 percent of public pre-k teachers and 25.4 percent of pre-k teachers in private centers.

Note: NIEER says national spending per child is $715 less than 2001-2002 levels in 2011 dollars. Georgia is spending nearly $1,000 less per child, based on their calculations that $3,721 is equivalent to $5,284 in 2011 dollars.