published Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Georgia slipping behind other states in pre-k

DORIE TURNER, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia, long considered a national leader in providing prekindergarten education, is slipping behind other states after student enrollment and inflation outpaced state spending for the last decade, a study has found.

The study released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University shows that Georgia has plummeted to 20th place in state money spent per child at $4,206 per student, compared to the leader, New Jersey, with $11,578 per child. The state ranked ninth in 2003, a number determined when per-student funding is adjusted for inflation.

And Georgia now ranks fourth in the percentage of 4-year-olds in its lottery-funded pre-k program after hovering among the top three states since the annual study started coming out in 2003.

"You can have great standards on paper, but if you cut spending per child 10 years running, that has to hurt quality," said Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute. "It's really risking its national leadership by this cut after cut after cut."

The numbers in the study — based on 2009-2010 data — do not reflect reductions made to the pre-k program for this fall, which include cutting 20 days from the school year to help reduce spending on programs funded by the Georgia Lottery. The original plan was to make it a half-day program, but Gov. Nathan Deal changed directions after an outcry from parents, teachers and schools.

The move allowed the state to cut $54 million from the cash-strapped program while adding 2,000 slots. Deal has said the cuts were necessary to help keep lottery-funded programs like pre-k and the HOPE scholarship from going broke.

"The governor has taken courageous steps to make sure we have this program going forward," said Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson.

Georgia's program, which opened in 1993, is funded solely with lottery money. It remains the only state whose policy is to offer free full-day prekindergarten for any 4-year-old, although that access is limited now to a set number of slots because of financial constraints.

This year, Georgia serves 83,000 students, or a little more than half of the state's 4-year-olds. At least 10,000 children are on a waiting list for the program.

Advocates say they want to see a more dependable stream of revenue for the program.

"We have to make pre-k a standard part of educating children. To do that we can't leave it to chance by strictly funding it with the lottery," said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children.

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