Last year, Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program enrolled more than 80,000 4-year-olds statewide.
But since 2002, the funding per child has dropped almost $1,000, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
Last year, the state spent $4,298 per child enrolled in a state funded pre-K program, raking Georgia 19th nationally when it comes to expending such resources.
The dwindling funding, however, has not really slowed Georgia’s production, according to the research center, which established 10 benchmarks to rate pre-K programs.
Georgia met all 10, something only five other states accomplished.
Both Hall County Schools and Gainesville City Schools operate pre-K programs, and their leaders say the programs have been successful for a variety of reasons.
“I think there’s been a huge change in terms pre-K programming, even in my 20 years of educational leadership,” said Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent. “It is much more aligned with early literacy and what it going in the elementary schools than it used to be. It used to be, for lack of a better word, for child care.”
That literacy proficiency, other educational leaders say, is crucial to address at an early age.
“If you look at any of the studies of why Georgia and some other states are falling behind economically, it’s because of the reading and literacy rates of the adults,” said Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville City Schools superintendent. “We’re already behind if we don’t have those early literacy skills.”
The Gainesville school system runs three pre-K programs and coordinates four more with Head Start, a federally funded pre-K program.
They staff the programs with certified teachers, but due to budget constraints, only employ teachers with three years experience or less.
“The only way to make it break even is to have beginning teachers with bachelor’s degrees and no more that three years experience,” said Dyer.
She said they lose about two teachers per year because of that.
The Gainesville system receives about $660,000 in state money for its programs, but does provide additional local funding to pay for teacher benefits.
Hall County receives about half of that for its six programs, which includes 132 children at five schools.
It also partners with Ninth District Opportunity, which oversees additional programs at various elementary schools in the county.
Hall County’s programs are dual-immersion, meaning the class is split between native Spanish and native English speakers, and two languages are used throughout the day.
“Exposure for students to two languages at a young age has a huge cognitive payoff,” said Dave Moody, county director for elementary schools and principal at World Language Academy. “We have been very pleased with (the pre-K programs).”
But with the shrinking budgets, Hall pre-K programs have had to cut days and add two more students to each class.
“It presents a few challenges every time you take away instructional days away from kids,” said Carrie Woodcock, the pre-K program director for the county.
She says even with the shortened schedule, pre-K is a good way to give students an extra boost.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for those kids to get in and get a leg up,” said Woodcock. “I’m just grateful we have it and hope it can continue.”