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Funding Quality Preschool Programs Is Not a Priority in GA

How misguided can our politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, be to cut spending on preschool education in Georgia?  They demonstrate a lack of knowledge on the basic facts, little common sense when it comes to planning for the future, and absolutely no fortitude when it comes to providing a viable economic model to fund preschool education in Georgia.

So today, I was out for a walk at 4:00 p.m. listening to WABE’s, All Things Considered.  They aired a story on the economic issues facing preschool education in GA.  Decreasing revenue from the state’s lottery has resulted in a funding gap that can only be filled by slashing nearly 14% from the state’s preschool program budget, nearly $50 million dollars out of a $400 million annual budget.  I then read the article, Slower Lottery Sales Hit Georgia’s Pre-K Program, in the October 11th edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the same story.

Let’s look at the brutal facts:

  • Graduating America: Meeting the Challenge of Low Graduation-Rate High Schools,” a report published through Johns Hopkins University and funded by the Gates Foundation by puts Georgia among 17 states with the lowest overall graduation rates in the country.
  • The release of 2010 SAT scores found that while some Georgia schools did well, overall GA schools landed once again at the bottom of the heap at 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Georgia’s public, private and home school students in the Class of 2010 scored an average of 1,453 and trailed their peers’ national average of 1,509.
  • While Georgia students showed modest increases in their performance on the 2009 NAEP, The Nations Report Card, Georgia students were still below the average for all 50 states.  Some would argue there are reasons to be joyful over this progress but the truth is that while Georgia’s overall “eighth-grade math score increased from 275 in 2007 to 278 in 2009, the only student subgroup to show significant improvement was females, as compared to males. For white, black, and Hispanic, and low-income and non low-income eighth-grade students in Georgia, there was no significant change in average scores over the two-year period.” (Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education)

These are merely three sets of facts that strongly suggest K-12 education in Georgia is not serving students’ needs effectively.  Is there really any argument on that point?  Can we be proud of these benchmarks as a state?  I hope the answer is absolutely not and I also hope that we would not try to justify or explain away our problems and look for solutions to provide Georgia public school students with a strong 21st Century education.

Let’s look at some truths about what we know will improve K-12 education:

  • Research indicates that Investing in high-quality preschool education programs that serve all children provide them the early tools they need to succeed down the pipeline.  A study conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research found:
  1. The Chicago Child Parent Center study produced a present value of $48,000 in benefits per child from a half-day public school preschool (an average of 1.5 years attendance) for low-income children.
  2. The study found at age 20, participants were more likely to have finished high school than children who weren’t in the program. They were also less likely to have been held back in school, less likely to have needed remedial help, and less likely to have been arrested. It’s estimated for every dollar invested, the return is $7, based on the reduced costs of remedial education and justice system expenditures, and in the increased earnings and projected tax revenues for participants.
  3. The Perry Preschool program produced a present value of $108,000 per child from a half-day public preschool program for very low-income children.
  4. The study found at age 27, program participants had higher monthly earnings and completed a higher level of schooling than children who didn’t take part. There were also fewer arrests among participants and a lower percentage received social services over the past 10 years. It’s estimated the program also returned $7 for every dollar invested.
  • Another truth is that when elementary students have high-quality teachers three years in a row, they have a greater chance of succeeding in school further down the pipeline.  In the Tennessee study from Sanders and Rivers in 1996, students with highly effective teachers for three years in a row scored 50 percentage points higher on a test of math skills than those whose teachers were considered ineffective.
  • The following factors related to teachers are also important in creating effective learning environments: (1) experience is very important; (2) teacher attrition matters has a negative impact; (3) teacher ability matters; (4) teachers’ subject matter knowledge helps students learn; (5) preparation and training in how to teach makes a difference; and (6) teacher diversity may also be important.  Check out (click here) the work from Center for Public Education on teacher quality.
  • What is the expression?  “You get what you pay for.”  In a 2009 New York Times article, Teacher Pay Around the World, American teachers work longer hours and generally get paid much less when scaled to the wealth of different countries.  Median salaries of experienced teachers hover around $50,000.  “In the United States, a teacher with 15 years of experience makes a salary that is 96 percent of the country’s gross domestic product per capita.”  We rank 25th in the world with teachers in Korea ranking first in terms of their compensation relative to a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product per capita.  How can we get high-quality teachers if we are not willing to pay for them?

So, we know a high-quality preschool program prepares students to succeed in school, we know experienced teachers are generally more highly qualified than inexperienced teachers, we know that the professional development that leads to high-quality teaching is worth spending resources on, and we know that good teachers are unpaid professionals.  If we know these four things, then why are we cutting preschool programs and slashing 10% from the meager salaries of preschool teachers?  The answer is that the people making these decisions are not informed or refuse to face the reality staring them in the face.

Why does Georgia fund its preschool program through proceeds from the GA State Lottery?  It may have appeared to be innovative in 1995, but it is clearly a disaster in 2011.  Is funding anything vital to our society through a gambling scheme really an intelligent and sustainable financial model?  In an economic downturn, I would propose that the model is totally misguided.

To achieve what our preschoolers require for effective learning we need to invest resources not eliminate them.  Our preschoolers will be under-served by letting experienced teachers leave and replacing them with inexperienced teachers.  Our preschoolers will be under-served when good teachers have their pay cut 10%.  Their salaries are already quite low for what we expect of them.  We should be investing in increasing their salaries not decreasing them.  This investment requires resources that are sustainable and reliable.  We build infrastructures like roads with tax dollars.  Why wouldn’t we build a preschool program with tax dollars, while also expecting families to pay what they can afford based on a sliding scale.  Families need to invest in quality preschool programs as well.

In the AJC article they quote Stephanie Mayfield, spokeswoman for Governor Deal, as saying:

the cuts to pre-k were made only out of necessity.

Mayfield goes on to say that,

Governor Deal values the work of Georgia’s pre-k teachers and believers that our early childhood educators are absolutely critical in making sure students get a firm foundation …  Moving forward, increasing salaries of Georgia’s pre-k teachers will be a top priority for the governor.

Does Mayfield really believe we will swallow those lines.  If Governor Deal really understood the value of a quality preschool education he would: (1) not support the cuts regardless of how they were funded and look for other revenues (tax increases) to close the gap; or (2) he would encourage and support legislation to fund preschool programs in Georgia with a more financially sustainable model.  He has been in office long enough to see where his priorities lie.  His rhetoric can only be judged by his actions.

So what are the takeaways for me.

  1. We do not place a high enough priority in this country, certainly in GA, on quality preschool education for all children.
  2. We do not value teachers who work with preschool-aged children nearly enough.  While GA pays its preschool teachers a little higher than the national average, the number is still embarrassingly low, around $28,000 (click here for data).  Cutting salaries this low by 10% is criminal in my view.  Just for comparison, an average police officer’s salary in Georgia is $49,000.
  3. We do not understand the value of creating a supportive and professional culture for our teachers in all schools, but certainly in preschools.  We need to invest in professional development of our preschool teachers.
  4. We do not understand the cost to our preschool children when we overtly encourage the replacement of experienced teachers with inexperienced teachers, eroding the mentoring culture that should be there to support teachers new to the profession.

Where is the political leadership?  Where is the child-centered vision that should be driving the conversation about how to responsibly finance our preschools?  From what I see in Georgia, it is not anywhere to be found in the public sector.

For a bright spot, check out this piece in Atlanta Daybook about the East Lake Early Learning Center.  I attended the official opening of the Center and was highly impressed with the quality of the facility, the innovative programs, and the community support for early learning.  The YMCA of Metro Atlanta and the Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language and Learning launched this new early learning center devoted to improving literacy in Georgia.  The program, called Read Right From the Start, is a novel approach to teaching literacy to preschoolers and could serve as a model throughout Georgia.

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Let’s work to provide these types of programs for all our children and find responsible ways to pay for them.

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