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Despite big budgets, Georgias lottery-funded programs feel squeeze of economic downturn
Changes to pre-K are anticipated to save the state $54 million
0828education5
Pre-kindergarten teacher Alaina Morris helps Larry Peoples, 4, make a necklace Thursday while Andrew Benson, 4, works alone during class at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Gambling on hope

As college students head back to classes with a reduced HOPE scholarship, The Times takes a look at the finances of that scholarship, the state's pre-kindergarten program and the Georgia lottery that funds them.

Today: A look at the HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs in the wake of funding cuts.

Coming Monday: The Georgia Lottery Corp. isn't immune to budget cutbacks and neither are lottery players.

Coming Tuesday: For some, playing the lottery pays off. For others, the games are just a drain on already small paychecks.

 

The Georgia Lottery Corp. lost more than $65 million between 2009, when ticket sales were highest, and 2011.

The loss in revenue was due to multiple factors but it affected a lot more than store owners and lottery employees. Those most affected were those who benefitted from the programs the Georgia Lottery was designed to help: children.

"Combined between Pre-K and public schools, the incoming cost of the program was rising and outstripping the deposits made by the Georgia Lottery," said Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission. "There was a need to do something."

That something turned into altering the benefit levels to reflect the money available. The new HOPE scholarship does not cover books and fees and no longer covers full tuition.

Changes also limit the number of years students are eligible to receive HOPE funding after graduating high school, Connell said.

Between 10 percent and 11 percent of high school students do qualify for the "old" HOPE, now known by a new name. The Zell Miller scholarship covers full tuition for students who have at least a 3.7 grade-point average and a minimum 1200 score on the SAT.

In order to get the Zell Miller scholarship, however, students must qualify upon graduation. The scholarship can't be awarded to college students.

In addition, the Georgia Pre-K program lost funding, classes and calendar days but added students because of the lottery funding changes, according to data from Bright From the Start, the state program's office.

"It was our belief we had to do something this legislative session," state House Speaker David Ralston said. "The House started working last summer at different solutions and ways we could preserve the program. Gov. (Nathan) Deal was an extremely valuable ally - within 48 hours of his election he was meeting with us."

Losing HOPE
The solution was met with concern from Georgia parents and students, Ralston said.

High schools and colleges around the state worked to inform students of the changes, but some are still perplexed at where they fall.

"They're not very informative," said Gabriella Sims, a sophomore at Gainesville State College from Braselton. "Just two days ago I realized I was getting the wrong scholarship. I was supposed to have the Zell Miller Scholarship. ... I just kind of feel confused. Everything I've learned about HOPE has been through someone else, not from an official."

Jill Rayner, director of financial aid and veteran success at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, said the college tried to educate students and parents about the changes to HOPE using videos, PowerPoint presentations and talks at orientation.

"The primary impact was on the students who graduated last year and the ones who are seniors this year," Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. "There weren't fewer who were able to receive it; just the funding levels weren't as high."

Since the lottery began in the early 1990s, more than 1 million students statewide have received HOPE funding. In Hall County and Gainesville, almost $93 million in HOPE scholarship dollars have been returned, according to data from the Georgia Lottery Corp. That's enough to fund more than 22,000 students through college.

Even with the changes, Connell said he doesn't think the requirements to receive HOPE will change because of budget constraints, only the amount of funding. In fact, he said, the number of high school graduates eligible for HOPE increases every year.

"We'll do a calculation to determine what the benefits will be with the money available," Connell said. "The key part is we can now manage that."

It's too early to tell what the full effects on college enrollment will be, but some local students and university officials are seeing ramifications that could be related to HOPE.

"I know a lot of people who are doing general studies," said Carly Burruss, a freshman at Gainesville State from Cumming. "Some were pre-med and changed. Especially with HOPE they didn't want to lose that."

Chase Bennett of Gainesville, a freshman at Gainesville State, said more people seemed to be withdrawing from harder classes. Sims said she had a lot of friends who had to leave their original college and come to a smaller community college because of financial problems associated with the changes in HOPE.

North Georgia College & State University has 500 Zell Miller scholarship recipients.

"I was really surprised by the number of students eligible for Zell," Rayner said. "We're still trying to track them down."

The financial aid office has had more traffic than usual. Rayner said seven people since June have been employed just to answer phone calls and emails. In the first week of school alone, 1,900 students called the office to request services.

"For some students, it's been a big adjustment but we've been able to help a lot of families come up with other opportunities to pay for school," she said.

Kate Maine, director of university relations for North Georgia College & State University, recently attended a conference with colleagues from other universities in the state.

"There was a lot of anecdotal information about enrollment numbers," she said. "We still saw some growth in enrollment. Not as much as in previous years, but some. We haven't been able to connect that with HOPE changes."

Keeping kids bright from the start
Changes to the state's pre-K program, however, are more evident.

As with HOPE, more than 1 million 4-year-olds have been served through the state's pre-K program over the years. Pre-K is funded through two channels: Federal money comes from the Head Start program and state money arises through the Bright from the Start program.

"Prior to this year it was funded at the level of one lead teacher, one assistant teacher and 20 children per class. This year with the changes, it's one lead teacher, one assistant teacher and 22 children per class," Dyer said.

The addition of two children doesn't affect classroom management, said Alaina Morris, a Georgia pre-K teacher at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School.

"Nobody's complaining about any of the extra kids," Morris said. "I don't think (class sizes) will get much larger."

Though the Georgia Lottery budget was reduced, Stacey Moore, public relations director for Bright from the Start, said the program still receives one-third of the lottery proceeds.

The program will serve an additional 2,000 students but the school year calendar was reduced to 160 days.

Morris said she thinks the reduction in calendar days might affect parents more than it will teachers, who do not get those days off in Gainesville schools.

"We'll work with other grades doing small groups," Morris said. "I'm sure in other districts teachers might have those days off."

School districts are also charged with having site managers and project directors for their pre-K locations this year. Because Gainesville schools were in a budget deficit until January 2011, the system was unable to comply with some of the personnel requirements.

"This year we have put an emphasis on bringing back our pre-K program to a level that when we were in deficit we were unable to fund," Dyer said.

The changes to pre-K are anticipated to save the state $54 million, according to a Bright from the Start news release. Though teachers lose 10 percent of their salaries and the number of days was shortened, operating costs were only reduced by about 7 percent.

For blended pre-K classes serviced by both state and federal funding, class size will not be affected as Head Start only funds up to 20 children.

If a classroom does not have 22 students and it is not a blended class, the state will not fully fund its pre-K program.

"Georgia parents have come to expect high-quality pre-K programs for their children. If there were a reduction in lottery-funded pre-K programs, then it is reasonable to believe that parents may look to early childhood programs including child care centers, preschools, charter and private schools for those services," Moore said in an email to The Times.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is in charge of Bright From the Start, Dyer said.

The department determines where there's a need for pre-K programs, how much of a need is present and how much money a district will get.

"Hall County and Gainesville have a very large need," Dyer said. "We got into the pre-K system in 1996."

Hall County, including Gainesville, received close to $50 million in pre-K funding from the lottery, making it possible for nearly 15,000 children to begin their education early.

According to data from Bright from the Start, about 100 pre-K classes close each year because of reduced enrollment and programs closings. DECAL officials said they "anticipate having to close an additional 200 classes. We will need to close a total of 306 classrooms."

Local school districts saw 16 of those classrooms, both private and public, close.

The Gainesville school system operates eight pre-K classes in public schools. The system had nine classes in 2010 but lost one class at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy, Dyer said.

Preserving the purpose
Ralston insists it was not feasible for the Georgia Lottery to continue operating as it was and contributing the same amounts to HOPE and pre-K. In fiscal year 2009, the year lottery sales peaked, 82,000 4-year-olds were put through pre-K and more than 240,000 HOPE recipients drained the lottery of $640.5 million.

Those numbers rose as ticket sales slumped.

"By decreasing the amount of HOPE for tuition and setting a percentage number, we were both adapting to the changed economic environment as well as keeping the spirit of the program," Ralston said.

"We built a sustainable program that will be able to endure future development."

Despite the changes, Ralston contends HOPE is still the country's most generous state-funded scholarship.

According to data from Deal's office, Florida requires a 3.5 GPA and at least a 1270 SAT or 28 ACT to receive full tuition. South Carolina students must have a 3.5 GPA and at least a 1200 SAT or 27 ACT to get the maximum amount of $6,700, and that does not cover full tuition.

Tennessee has a similar system where students can only get up to $4,000 a year.

New Mexico is the only state that covers full tuition, but only after a student proves his or her abilities in the first year of college.

Carrie Woodcock, dual language coordinator at World Language Academy, oversees some of the Hall County School District's pre-K programs. She said they're a valued part of the system's education system and doesn't want to think of them closing if the Georgia Lottery continues to lose funding.

The challenge Dyer foresees is tension. She said those in charge of HOPE and pre-K will both want funding.

"The only perception is the reality. There's not enough money to sustain it," Dyer said. "The HOPE program is an indescribable opportunity for students in Georgia. Perhaps it's been taken too much for granted."

 

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