A new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) says enrollment and funding for Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program have dropped. The study also says class sizes are too high, teacher pay is too low and Georgia doesn’t offer enough support for dual language learners.
The study shows Georgia’s Pre-K program enrolled more than 1,000 fewer children during the 2014-15 school year than it did the year before.
Amy Jacobs is the commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning, which runs the state’s Pre-K program. She says the number of students dropped that year due to a dip in the birth rate. But, Jacobs says, the program still served the same percentage of children.
"We serve consistently 60 percent of four-year-olds every year,” she says. “We continue to serve 60 percent of four-year-olds."
NIEER Director Steve Barnett says Georgia’s program needs a bigger budget.
“There isn’t anything magical, I think, about sixty percent,” he said. “For example, 17 percent of the young children in Georgia come from homes where English isn’t the first language. Georgia reaches a third of those, but that’s far from where it ought to be.”
Barnett admits that’s a tough task, but says states like Texas are doing a good job reaching those students.
Jacobs says DECAL has a summer session for native Spanish-speaking four-year-olds to help them get ready for Pre-K.
“Dual language learners come in behind their peers when they get to Pre-K, but they make huge gains during the Pre-K year,” she says.
The NIEER report also says Georgia’s Pre-K program is under-funded. It claims in 2002, Georgia spent $5,600 per child in its Pre-K program. In 2015, it spent $3,900 per child.
During the recession, the state made cuts to the program, like increasing class sizes, shrinking the number of days in the school year and reducing teacher pay. The report also points out that Georgia's Pre-K teachers earn far less than their elementary school counterparts. Jacobs says that's about to change.
“The governor and the Legislature have just finally approved the FY 17 budget,” she says. “That’s an increase of $36 million for Pre-K which will go to address that issue.”
Increasing teacher pay for Pre-K teachers was one of the recommendations made by an Education Reform Commission appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal last year. The commission also suggested restoring smaller class sizes, but the Legislature didn’t take that up this year.
Jacobs says the NIEER report doesn’t focus on the overall impact of the state’s Pre-K program.
“We show through our research children make gains across all domains of learning – above and beyond what would normally be considered for their development, and that quality is consistent throughout the state,” she says. “So no matter if that child is in Pre-K in North Georgia or South Georgia, they’re receiving the same type of quality.”