Georgia's Pre-K Program Feels Fiscal Strains
Georgia's prekindergarten program remained stable for 10 years and has enjoyed the strong bipartisan support of state legislators. But that may not be enough to make it immune to the poor economic conditions that have led other states to trim early-childhood-education services already this year.
Now serving more than 65,000 children, the state's Office of School Readiness is looking for ways to tighten spending without putting a cap on the number of children being served or stepping back from serving families of all income levels.
Currently, no specific plans are "on the table" that would reduce access, Marsha Moore, the agency's director, said during a recent interview. "We very much want to keep it universal."
Often referred to as a national model, the free full-day program is open to any Georgia 4-year-old, regardless of family income, and is supported by the state lottery. More than $2 billion in lottery proceeds have been spent on the program since it began in 1993.
The lottery also pays for another successful education program that Georgia is known for: the HOPE Scholarship. That program covers tuition and fees for students at public colleges who keep at least a B average. And because of rising tuition and increasing demands for the scholarships, state officials warn that lottery revenues may fall short of paying for the scholarships and pre-K programs.
A newly formed commission is meeting monthly this fall to discuss possible ways to cut spending while preserving the two popular programs.
In the meantime, Ms. Moore is finding more efficient ways to operate.
One of the primary ways her agency is saving money is by forming partnerships with other early-childhood programs—particularly Head Start—to train teachers.
Gov. Sonny Perdue, a first-term Republican, is among those who support a GOP plan in Congress to give as many as eight states more authority over Head Start dollars so that they can blend their pre-K programs with the federal preschool program. Head Start supporters have bitterly opposed the plan, calling it the beginning of a "dismantling" of Head Start.
Ms. Moore says the relationship between pre-K and Head Start in Georgia is amicable."We do a nice overlap of services," said Janice M. Haker, the executive officer of the Georgia Head Start Association. She noted that if Head Start-eligible children are served in the state's prekindergarten program, Head Start still provides many other comprehensive services for them, such as health and dental care.
And because the pre-K program serves so many 4-year-olds, Head Start in that state is able to serve more 3-year-olds, Ms. Haker and Ms. Moore pointed out.
That collaboration might also be useful as the pre-K program tries to tackle an area that needs improvement, according to a new study. Conducted by researchers at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, the study showed that after they completed the prekindergarten program, children lost academic ground during the summer months before they started kindergarten. That was especially true for African-American children, according to the study.
The study, which was released last month, says that "summer programs focused on specific developmental goals and dedicated to serving more children from disadvantaged families at an earlier age are likely to yield benefits."
While no lottery funds will be available to provide such services, Ms. Moore said that small grants and other partnership programs with school districts might be the way to address those needs.
The study, which looked at 630 children who started preschool in the fall of 2001, showed that no matter what kind of program they attended—private, state pre-K, or Head Start—the Georgia 4-year-olds began preschool scoring below national averages on three out of four tests.
But by the beginning of kindergarten, the pupils were scoring closer to, or exceeding, the national averages.
Children in private preschool programs started out scoring higher than those in the state pre-K initiative. But the pre-K program was able to narrow the gap between the two groups to the point where it was "statistically insignificant," by the beginning of kindergarten, said Gary T. Henry, the lead researcher and a professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State.
Among disadvantaged children, the study showed, children from the pre-K program were more prepared for kindergarten than those who had attended Head Start. Mr. Henry attributes those gains to the pre-K program's ongoing monitoring of centers and their teachers, and professional-development.
Instead of removing teachers from classrooms for training, he said, consultants are brought in during the school day to observe and give teachers immediate feedback.
To some observers outside the state, however, Georgia still has plenty of room for improvement in its pre-K classrooms.
"We don't think the Georgia model has the quality standards that we would like to see," said W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the National Institute on Early Education Research, a think tank at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., that tracks early-childhood programs.
He maintained that even though a large majority—more than 80 percent—of the teachers in Georgia's pre-K program have bachelor's degrees, they are not of the same caliber as K-12 teachers.
Private child-care centers and other providers that contract with the state to run the Georgia program, he added, must supplement the state's funding in order to deliver adequate services. "How much local public school money is going in? What is the private sector putting in?" he said.
Still, Mr. Henry said that for the most part, private providers are willing to come up with ways to cover costs because offering the prekindergarten program to parents is still a selling point across the state.
"The industry has responded," he said.
Vol. 23, Issue 4, Page 22