WASHINGTON — For nearly two decades, Georgia was hailed as an educational innovator because of its merit-based college scholarships and its pre-kindergarten classes. Funded with lottery proceeds, the HOPE scholarship and the pre-K program help former Gov. Zell Miller lay claim to a game-changing legacy. Georgia was the first state to offer free kindergarten to all 4-year-olds.
And the state’s pre-K classes have been more than a cheap babysitting service. In 2009, a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research concluded that Georgia’s pre-K program was well run, meeting 8 of 10 benchmarks for quality. Its high ratio of teachers to children and its small class sizes were among the features that earned high marks.
But Miller’s educational legacy is now under assault, a victim of its success and flat-lining lottery proceeds. With legislators considering cuts to the HOPE scholarship, Gov. Nathan Deal has announced that he also wants to slash nearly $20 million from the pre-K program, a decision that will certainly affect the program’s quality.
Georgia faces a gaping budget shortfall, and Deal has to pare back state spending. But his proposal to cut pre-K is shortsighted and wrong-headed — exactly backwards. Deal is sacrificing the state’s future at a time when educational standards need to be raised, not lowered. President Obama has repeatedly emphasized higher academic attainment as a key to continued economic prosperity.
Experts in early childhood development have come to understand that the earliest years are critical to a child’s intellectual development. Children who get extra attention during those years — help with vocabulary, reading, colors, shapes, motor skills — are much more likely to do well throughout their academic careerse. If you want to assure a solid educational foundation, you should offer children a high-quality learning environment before first grade.
“We don’t need another study to tell us the importance of early childhood education,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. “These are extraordinarily tough times, but I think where we cut quality or cut access, the long-term implications are huge. We need to think of education as an investment.”
For all the accolades it has received, Georgia’s pre-K program has never been as good as it should have been. To start, it has never been “universal” because its popularity exceeds the number of available slots. There’s always a waiting list. And its budget has not kept up with inflation. That means further cuts will likely do serious damage.
Because pre-K is so popular with parents (read, “voters”), Deal has said that he will protect the 84,000 pre-K slots that are currently available. That means Bright from the Start, the state agency which operates pre-K, will likely have to cut teachresand raise class sizes.
And the agency won’t have the luxury to even consider strengthening teacher education — an area where Georgia’s pre-K program doesn’t earn high marks. Experts in early childhood education say that having highly-skilled pre-kindergarten teachers can affect students — and their earnings — well into adulthood.
Given the importance of the pre-school years, it’s no surprise that state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, recommends that the state scrimp on college rather than pre-K. “If I could, I would put two-thirds of the money from the lottery into pre-k and one-third into the HOPE scholarship,” Millar, chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
He’s right. The HOPE scholarship has become an enormously popular middle-class entitlement. Cutting it as sharply as Millar suggests would require an act of political hara-kiri (cq).
Instead, the Georgia Legislature should require means-testing for pre-K classes, so they benefit the students who need them most. Georgia’s upper-middle-class parents have the financial resources to provide high-quality child care, classes and trips to museums and puppet shows — even for toddlers.
But working class kids rarely get those perks at home.
Since Georgia’s future will depend on high educational attainment from thousands of toddlers living in working class homes, the state needs to make sure they, too, are “Bright from the Start.”