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Funding Cuts Threaten Georgia's Standing as Early-Education Leader

A new report suggests that Georgia's vaunted reputation as an early-education leader is threatened by funding cuts to its state prekindergarten program that have resulted in fewer class days, reductions in the number of available slots and an increase in class size.

"How the state responds to pre-K funding challenges will determine the broader fate of education in Georgia and have a tremendous impact on the state's economy," policy analyst Cedric D. Johnson said in the report recently released by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. "Lawmakers should enhance access to pre-K education and improve its quality by investing more in the program, not less. Doing so not only prepares Georgia children for success in their elementary and secondary education, but also positions Georgia's future workforce to successfully compete for good-paying jobs."

The state has garnered a strong reputation for its early-education efforts, which include offering universal pre-K, over the past 20 years. The pre-K program, open to kids of all income levels, serves 84,000 mostly low-income 4-year-olds, with waiting lists throughout the state.

The report notes that both the preschool program and HOPE, a college scholarship program, are funded by revenue from the Georgia lottery; yet the preschool program's share has been "cut sharply in recent years as a result of HOPE's increasing financial demands." In fiscal year 2012, the cuts resulted in fewer class days, pay cuts for teachers and larger class sizes. During the next fiscal year, funding cuts will mean 2,000 fewer slots for kids, the report says.

Kids from lower- to moderate-income households will be most affected since they make up the majority of enrollment in the state's pre-K programs. The report calls for investing in pre-K to remain a priority "given the benefits of early education to Georgia's economy over the long term" and that the program should not suffer to make up for HOPE's financial woes.

In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state's top official for early learning discussed efforts to maintain the quality of Georgia's program in tough financial times and cautioned against pitting the pre-K and college scholarship programs against each other over funding.

"Both are positive programs. The funding is a policy debate for legislators and governors. They have determined this is the way to do it," Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning's Bright From the Start program, told the newspaper.

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