Georgia Pre-K Commissioner Bobby Cagle and Sen. Jack Hill brought some books to life for 4-year-olds at Kid’s World Learning Center Thursday and heard how one prekindergarten provider has adapted to less funding and more children.
For nine months now Cagle – who is not related to the lieutenant governor – has been commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning, which also bills itself as “Bright from the Start.” The agency administers the lottery-funded Pre-K program and licenses and monitors day care centers.
Hill, who represents District 4 in the state Senate, also chairs its Appropriations Committee. Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy organization Voices for Georgia’s Children, joined them for the morning visit to the child care center on Statesboro’s Savannah Ave.
Advocacy leader chose Statesboro
Voices for Georgia’s Children asked legislators to visit Pre-K sites in their districts during Georgia Pre-K Week. Of the 236 Georgia General Assembly members, 107 signed up to participate, said Willis. Meanwhile, all Pre-K sites were asked to invite a local dignitary. But Willis chose to travel from Atlanta to meet Hill and Cagle at Kid’s World.
“Our real objective was to make sure that the people who are making the decisions about Pre-K have actually seen it, experienced it and know how to talk about it,” Willis said.
Kid’s World, owned and directed by Michele Smith Lank, is a day care center for children from newborns to school age. She employs 13 people, just two of whom, teacher Channie Frazier and assistant teacher Maria Smith, work with the 22 children in the Pre-K classroom. Prekindergarten is for 4-year-olds, who often turn 5 during the school year.
Faced with stagnation in lottery revenue and growth in the Pre-K, HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Grant programs it funds, the Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal this year enacted changes to all three programs. Pre-K funding was reduced from $355 million to $301 million. Meanwhile, the number of children served was allowed to expand from 84,000 to 86,000.
To fit the growing program into the 15-percent smaller budget, the state reduced the Pre-K school year from 10 months to nine and raised the class size limit from 20 students to 22.
This was a compromise after an earlier proposal to cut the Pre-K day from six hours to four. Voices for Georgia’s Children opposed the shortened day but accepted the one-month cut and class expansion as the best solution that could be reached this year, Willis said.
But the organization remains concerned that the lost month will show up in reduced kindergarten readiness for children from disadvantaged homes, Willis added.
Kid’s World adjusts
Kid’s World has adjusted to the shorter term by offering Pre-K parents a Kindergarten Enrichment Camp for three weeks at the end of the year. Parents will have to pay for the day camp, but many will be able to use a low-income child care subsidy, said Smith Lank.
Unlike the national subsidy, Georgia Pre-K is open to all families regardless of income. However, the program, which has been in existence 16 years, has always operated on a first-come basis with a limited number of seats.
Currently, about 10,000 children are on waiting lists for Pre-K statewide, Willis said. Kid’s World had 28 children on its waiting list after the 22 were admitted, Smith Lank said. But she noted that some families may have signed up at more than one Pre-K location. In Bulloch County as statewide, a mix of public and private schools and day care centers host the program.
The statewide curriculum emphasizes age-appropriate learning through play. Children sort and count items for early math, experiment in a science area and pretend to cook and clean up in a housekeeping station.
Having adults read stories is another common Pre-K experience. Hill shared the story of “The Wide-Mouthed Frog” from a pop-up book, expressing surprise along with the children at what the frog’s reaction to the alligator.
Cagle read “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes,” illustrated by James Dean and written by Eric Litwin, both from Georgia. Voices for Georgia’s Children provided copies of this book to all state legislators for Pre-K readings.
Smith Lank, who gave the visitors a tour of her entire facility, noted that the Pre-K classroom is smaller than ordinarily required for 20 children. Cagle’s department also granted a waiver allowing her to keep 22 children there.
“We’ve got small space, but our passion is huge,” said Smith Lank, after the children laughed along with their visitors’ stories and gave them gifts.
Cagle thinks that the lottery-funded programs have been placed on a stable financial footing, he said. He hopes that as the economy improves, lottery revenues will improve and the Pre-K program can be built back to its previous scope. But he has no such expectation for next year’s budget.
“This year the economy is still in recovery mode and we really are anticipating a flat funding year,” Cagle said. “We’re not anticipating any cuts, but we’re also not anticipating the ability to do any kind of expansion.”
Lottery revenue has declined again in recent months, Hill noted. Pre-K receives about one-third of the revenue, while the rest goes to HOPE for students in Georgia’s colleges and technical schools.
Private Pre-K centers are under severe stress at current funding levels, while school systems that host Pre-K still receive no money for long-term building costs, Hill said. He has suggested changes ranging from having parents who have the means pay tuition to incorporating Pre-K into the state’s regular K-12 education funding.
“I certainly don’t have the answers,” Hill said. “But I know this: the value of the HOPE Scholarship in colleges, the value of HOPE Grants in technical and adult education and the value of the Pre-K program make all of these worthy expenditures and we just need to find a way to continue them.”