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Report: Ga. pre-k spending sees steady decline

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia, long considered a national leader in prekindergarten, has seen little growth in the number of children it serves and a steady decline in per-pupil spending over the last decade, according to a national study released Tuesday.

The researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University warned that Georgia's national standing is only expected to drop after state lawmakers cut 20 days from this year's pre-k calendar and boosted class sizes.

"This study shows really clearly that despite the fact that Georgia was the first to do universal pre-k, we cannot rest on our laurels, and we have a lot more to do for the kids in this state," said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance For Ready Students.

Georgia served about 60 percent of 4-year-olds in 2010-11, though the lottery-funded program is open to any child who wants to enroll. The state was among the only to increase the number of slots, despite the sagging economy, the researchers found.

The popular program has a waiting list of about 6,300 students, which is expected to grow after the state cut the number of slots for next school year from 86,000 to 84,000.

In contrast, the percentage of 4-year-olds served by Florida's pre-k program has increased every year since it started in 2006. Last year, 3 out of every 4 children were enrolled in pre-k in Florida, up from 47 percent five years earlier.

But the state spends $2,422 per child on its program, about half of what Georgia shells out.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who took office last year, has made early education one of his priorities, adding 10 days back to the pre-k calendar and vowing to put more money into the program.

Bobby Cagle, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said the governor is committed just as soon as funding allows to bring back the days needed for pre-k and to reduce class size.

"We are committed to doing that. It's just a matter of how quickly we can do that given the revenues we have from the lottery," Cagle said.

Georgia's program, which opened in 1993, became the nation's first universal preschool program for 4-year-olds in 1995.

For the first time ever, the state meets all 10 quality benchmarks for early education programs, one of just six states to do. That's because last year the state began requiring pre-k teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree, instead of a two-year diploma.

The researchers said the state will slip back to eight benchmarks in next year's report because of class size increases and cuts to length of the school year.

"Georgia is a real heart-breaker," said Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute that conducted the study. "It's so bittersweet because Georgia finally put the last piece of the puzzle in place requiring high-quality teachers, but then they cut the school year and teacher pay and you had a mass exodus of highly qualified teachers. That's so counter-productive."

Cagle said the state is piloting new ways of providing professional development to teachers with $1 million from the state's "Race to the Top" federal grant. He said by cutting slots in the program, the state can increase its per-pupil spending and focus on improving quality.

"I think it's incredible what Georgia has been able to do," said Binderman, whose organization works to improve early education in the state. "There are things we can be really proud of, but it points out that if we're not careful, we can adversely impact quality."