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Georgia misses out on federal grant for pre-k education
State could have won up to $70 million
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Federal officials announced Friday that Georgia is not among the winners of a U.S. Department of Education early learning grant.

The $500 million grant, split between nine states, was part of the federal Race to the Top grant. Georgia received $400 million in 2010 after a similar competition for kindergarten through 12th education.

"We are very disappointed that Georgia did not receive this grant, as effective early learning results in children entering school ready to learn and save spending on future remediation," Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. "However, federal funding is awarded to supplement services that are provided by state and local dollars. It is likely that the federal government viewed Georgia's application as using federal dollars to supplant for the cuts the state made in 2011."

The state, long considered a national leader in prekindergarten, was the first to offer free pre-k to any 4-year-old, a program that is nearly two decades old. It is also one of just a handful of states with a separate state department for early learning.

But in the last few years, the state has made cuts to the prekindergarten program and is far behind many states on creating a statewide system to rate the quality of preschools and daycares.

"The cuts have set Georgia back," said Steve Barnett, a researcher with the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "I don't think it's viewed as a national model in the same way any longer."

Georgia scored a 189.8 on its application out of a possible 300 points. The state ranked 25th among the 37 applicants for the money.

Neighboring North Carolina scored highest with 269.9 points, winning $70 million. The lowest score among the winning states was California with 243.6, and the state received $52.5 million.

Georgia could have won up to $70 million to move forward on 11 initiatives. Without the money, the state will have to focus on just six of those programs, said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

The department was hoping to speed up the development of its rating system with scores for 2,100 daycare centers and preschools by the end of next year, but now the system will reach just 700 facilities in that time, he said.

The state will have to raise about $10 million privately to pay for the teacher bonuses included in the rating system, he said.

Georgia also will have to put on hold the development of a skills test for children going into kindergarten, Cagle said.

"We are disappointed but undeterred," Cagle said. "I think it's very fair to say that Georgia is a leader and will remain a leader in early childhood education."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the governor "takes pride" in the process the state used to develop its application, even if Georgia was not named a winner.

"Early learning and early literacy are a top priority for Gov. Deal and he's disappointed Georgia did not receive the funds this go-round," spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said. "The process was a positive step toward helping Georgia to improve the quality of early learning opportunities - a step the governor will continue to push heavily."

While the state slashed 20 days from the prekindergarten school year starting this fall because of lagging lottery revenue, Cagle said he believes that Georgia's lack of a fully developed rating system hurt its chances of winning the federal competition the most.

But the state has been slipping behind other states in the last few years. In a study released by Barnett's institute in the spring, Georgia ranked 20th in state money spent per child on early education. That's compared to ninth place in 2003, a number determined when per-student funding is adjusted for inflation.

The state also has fallen to 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.

The winning states in the grant competition were: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.