How Georgia Got Republicans and Democrats to Embrace Universal Pre-K

Even die-hard conservatives in the state support its public pre-K program. That’s because it’s open to everyone, not just the poorest families.

Rendering of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and preschool kids. Funding the state's pre-kindergarten through a lottery was his idea.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Fawn Johnson
May 7, 2014, 11:21 a.m.

Three years ago, Geor­gia’s newly elec­ted Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Nath­an Deal was in a pickle. The money for the state’s pub­lic preschool pro­gram was dwind­ling fast. Geor­gia Pre-K, which is open to all 4-year-olds in the state, is fun­ded en­tirely by the Geor­gia Lot­tery. The lot­tery, like everything else, had suffered dra­mat­ic­ally from the eco­nom­ic down­turn. Something needed to be cut.

One ob­vi­ous solu­tion would have been to re­strict the pro­gram to a smal­ler pop­u­la­tion of low-in­come fam­il­ies. “We ac­tu­ally looked at wheth­er this was a vi­able op­tion dur­ing this fund­ing dis­cus­sion,” says Bobby Cagle, the com­mis­sion­er for Geor­gia’s De­part­ment of Early Care and Learn­ing. “Should we go to a tar­geted pro­gram? There are num­ber of reas­ons why I be­lieve we shouldn’t do that. If you use it as a tar­geted pro­gram, you mar­gin­al­ize the pro­gram in very dis­tinct ways.”

Voters of­ten see in­come-based pro­grams as wel­fare, which is un­pop­u­lar with con­ser­vat­ives in par­tic­u­lar, Cagle says. He ought to know. He watched his home state of North Car­o­lina ad­opt a need-based pre­kinder­garten pro­gram in the late 1980s. “It has been mar­gin­al­ized as a wel­fare pro­gram. It’s been on the chop­ping block every single year,” he says.

Deal agreed with Cagle’s ana­lys­is and main­tained the pro­gram’s uni­ver­sal ac­cess. In or­der to bal­ance the books, he wound up cut­ting 20 days from the Geor­gia Pre-K school cal­en­dar — which trans­lated in­to a roughly 10-per­cent pay cut for the teach­ers — and in­creased class sizes from 20 to 22 stu­dents. Over the course of the next two years, Deal was able to add back the 20 days as the eco­nomy (and lot­tery rev­en­ues) re­covered. The 22-stu­dent class size has re­mained in place.

Geor­gia’s uni­ver­sal pre­kinder­garten pro­gram is the old­est in the coun­try. It thrives in a red state and is cham­pioned by clas­sic con­ser­vat­ives like Deal. The pro­gram is open to all stu­dents, and it em­braces choice — any school that meets the state stand­ards, wheth­er re­li­gious, cor­por­ate, or private, can ap­ply for fund­ing. And its con­tin­ued suc­cess and pop­ular­ity re­flects the gulf between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans — who op­pose the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to ex­pand ac­cess to pre-K na­tion­wide — and the loc­al politi­cians who have em­braced state-sup­por­ted early-child­hood edu­ca­tion in some of the most con­ser­vat­ive states in the coun­try.

The fact that Geor­gia’s pro­gram does not rely on tax­pay­er dol­lars has con­trib­uted to its bi­par­tis­an ac­cept­ance. “Pre-K is not a tax bur­den,” says Stephanie Blank, the found­ing chair of the gov­ern­ing board of Geor­gia Early Edu­ca­tion for Ready Stu­dents, or GEEARS. “Some would ar­gue it’s a fin­an­cial bur­den, but play­ing the lot­tery is a choice. That does make it far more pal­at­able.”

Geor­gia Pre-K has been around for so long, it’s not seen as polit­ic­al any­more, if it ever was. “I nev­er looked at this as a par­tis­an is­sue, hon­estly,” says Sen. John Al­bers, a Re­pub­lic­an in the Geor­gia Le­gis­lature who rep­res­ents a dis­trict north of At­lanta. He sent both of his chil­dren to Geor­gia Pre-K. “If I had to do it all over again I’d do it two times.”

But the uni­ver­sal nature of Geor­gia’s pro­gram is an­oth­er key to its suc­cess — and that could be a sur­pris­ing les­son for oth­er states look­ing to build sup­port for early-edu­ca­tion pro­grams. “You’re not go­ing to see Re­pub­lic­ans go down to an in­come-based thing,” says Sen. Fran Mil­lar, an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an who is a mem­ber of the Geor­gia Sen­ate’s Edu­caiton and Youth Com­mit­tee. “It would get polit­ic­al in about six months. It would be about class war­fare.”

Zell Miller’s Great Idea

Es­tab­lish­ing a lot­tery for edu­ca­tion was the brainchild of former Geor­gia Gov. Zell Miller, a Demo­crat-turned-Re­pub­lic­an who is still be­loved throughout the state. In his first bid for gov­ernor in 1990, Miller looked for a way to cham­pi­on edu­ca­tion without tax hikes that would scare away con­ser­vat­ive voters. He knew that many state res­id­ents already played the Flor­ida lot­tery, and he figured that money might as well stay in-state. He pro­posed cre­at­ing a Geor­gia lot­tery whose pro­ceeds would go to two ded­ic­ated causes — col­lege schol­ar­ships and preschool. Miller cam­paigned al­most ex­clus­ively on that idea and won.

Geor­gia’s lot­tery-fun­ded preschool star­ted as a pi­lot pro­gram in 1992, tar­geted to low-in­come kids. The HOPE Schol­ar­ship, avail­able to any Geor­gia high-school gradu­ate with a 3.0 grade point av­er­age or bet­ter who at­tends a state col­lege, was es­tab­lished in 1993.

By 1994, the pre­kinder­garten pro­gram was serving about 15,000 chil­dren. The Geor­gia Lot­tery also was turn­ing out to be far more suc­cess­ful than any­one could have ima­gined. In 1994, a nar­rowly reelec­ted Miller was in the happy po­s­i­tion of de­cid­ing what to do with a fund­ing sur­plus. He de­cided on uni­ver­sal ac­cess to Geor­gia Pre-K. A top aide for Miller, Mike Vollmer, ex­plained the reas­on­ing in Eliza­beth Rose’s 2010 book The Prom­ise of Preschool: From Head Start to Uni­ver­sal Pre-Kinder­garten, telling Rose: “With the polit­ic­al con­ser­vat­ive en­vir­on­ment that we are liv­ing in, if we come out and try to push a pro­gram for poor kids, we’re not go­ing to get a whole lot of sup­port.”

Thus, by ca­ter­ing to a con­ser­vat­ive dis­like for wel­fare-type pro­grams, Geor­gia be­came the first state to es­tab­lish uni­ver­sal pre­kinder­garten. A gen­er­a­tion of Geor­gia’s chil­dren has now grown up with the pro­gram. A steady fund­ing stream en­sures that there is a ro­bust sup­ply of pre­kinder­garten pro­viders. The K-12 school sys­tems are fully in­ves­ted in pre­kinder­garten be­cause they don’t have to worry about com­pet­ing for scarce re­sources. Fam­il­ies have sent their small kids to Geor­gia Pre-K schools and then used the same rev­en­ue stream for their col­lege-bound stu­dents. They don’t ques­tion its ex­ist­ence.

These res­id­ents prob­ably don’t real­ize that Geor­gia’s preschool pro­gram is un­usu­al. Only 11 oth­er states place no in­come lim­it­a­tions in their pre­kinder­garten pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Early Edu­ca­tion Re­search. It’s worth not­ing that about half are red or semi-red states — Alabama, Flor­ida, Maine, Mis­souri, Ok­lahoma, and Vir­gin­ia.

In many of these states, however, en­roll­ment is low be­cause fund­ing is low. In Alabama, for ex­ample, only 6 per­cent of the state’s 4-year-olds were en­rolled in 2012 due to fund­ing con­straints. Mis­souri, like Geor­gia, uses a state gam­ing pro­gram to fund its pre­kinder­garten pro­gram, but there is so little money avail­able that only 4 per­cent of the state’s 4-year-olds were en­rolled in 2012.

Geor­gia, by con­trast, is at 58 per­cent en­roll­ment in Geor­gia Pre-K, with an­oth­er 7 per­cent of the state’s 4-year-olds en­rolled in the fed­er­ally fun­ded Head Start. (Many of the Head Start kids are in the same classrooms with Geor­gia Pre-K stu­dents.)

Of the states that don’t tar­get pre­kinder­garten to needy fam­il­ies, only Flor­ida and Ok­lahoma beat out Geor­gia in en­roll­ment, cov­er­ing 79 per­cent and 74 per­cent of 4-year-olds, re­spect­ively. But there is a dif­fer­ence: Flor­ida and Ok­lahoma rely on gen­er­al cof­fers to fund pre-K. In Geor­gia, it’s all about the lot­tery.

The De­bate Now

The con­ver­sa­tion about pre­kinder­garten in Geor­gia has moved to the next level. Ad­voc­ates and state of­fi­cials are now weigh­ing tweaks and im­prove­ments to a pro­gram that most people view as a suc­cess gen­er­ally.

The biggest com­plaints about Geor­gia Pre-K in­volve ac­cess. Some 6,000 kids are cur­rently on a wait­ing list, ac­cord­ing to state of­fi­cials. In an in­form­al sur­vey of 20 par­ents in midtown At­lanta, half said that they have wor­ried about not get­ting in to a Geor­gia Pre-K school and eight com­plained that the pro­gram wasn’t really “uni­ver­sal.” Eight of the re­spond­ents paid for private preschool.

“The qual­ity pre-K pro­grams are al­ways full, so many of us still end up us­ing private pre-K,” one par­ent said.

Still, wait lists are a ne­ces­sary evil if the state is go­ing to meet its budget, Cagle says. And with more ac­cess comes more de­mand. “If you in­crease the slots, you have more people that be­come aware of it,” he says, “and they’re more op­tim­ist­ic about their op­por­tun­ity to get in­to the pro­gram, and so you have more people ap­ply.”

When it comes to the lot­tery, state edu­ca­tion of­fi­cials give its man­age­ment a wide berth, pre­fer­ring to leave lot­tery op­er­a­tions to the ex­perts who have provided so much cash over the years. After the 2011 short­fall, Sen. Al­bers and a few of his fel­low le­gis­lat­ors star­ted cau­tiously ask­ing ques­tions of the lot­tery of­fi­cials. Did prize amounts need to be so high? Why were ex­ec­ut­ive bo­nuses so high?

The Le­gis­lature wound up passing a bill to cap ex­ec­ut­ive bo­nuses, but Al­bers says they aren’t likely to probe fur­ther if the lot­tery con­tin­ues to pro­duce good rev­en­ues. He says his con­ver­sa­tions with lot­tery of­ficers have been highly re­spect­ful, al­beit with a tiny threat be­hind them. “After we passed the bill to con­trol bo­nuses, it was like, ‘If you want us to con­trol everything with le­gis­la­tion, we can. You prob­ably don’t want us to,’ ” he says.

There are still ques­tions about the dis­tri­bu­tion of the lot­tery money. Two-thirds of the rev­en­ues are de­voted to the HOPE Schol­ar­ship, leav­ing one-third of the funds for pre­kinder­garten. Some people think Geor­gia Pre-K is be­ing short­changed. “If I had my druth­ers — it sounds like heresy for a Re­pub­lic­an — I would prob­ably have put more money in­to Pre-K than the HOPE Schol­ar­ship be­cause I think it’s so im­port­ant to get it on the front end,” says Mil­lar.

Deal tried to ad­dress that con­cern by re­du­cing the amount of the HOPE Schol­ar­ship awards. Be­fore he took of­fice, HOPE schol­ar­ships covered 100 per­cent of an eli­gible stu­dent’s tu­ition. Now, award amounts are based on a per­cent­age of the stu­dent’s tu­ition. Without that change, the schol­ar­ships would have gobbled up all of the avail­able lot­tery money be­cause col­lege costs were rising so fast, said Kristin Bernhard, who was Deal’s edu­ca­tion-policy ad­viser at the time.

“We were go­ing to re­spect that one-third/two-thirds dis­tri­bu­tion, and there was no way to do that un­less we looked at what people were re­ceiv­ing on the HOPE schol­ar­ship side,” says Bernhard, who be­came a deputy com­mis­sion­er at the state’s De­part­ment of Early Care and Learn­ing in Janu­ary.

Early-edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates are push­ing bey­ond these para­met­ers, say­ing it’s time to start talk­ing about us­ing the state’s gen­er­al funds for pre­kinder­garten. “We need to be real­ist­ic and clear that we don’t have a lot of our state dol­lars go­ing to edu­ca­tion,” says Mindy Bind­er­man, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of GEEARS. “If we really want to ex­pand, at some point we’re go­ing to have to fig­ure that out.”

State of­fi­cials are so far re­ject­ing that idea. “This was foun­ded primar­ily as a lot­tery pro­gram, and we have re­mained true to that and the dis­cus­sions have really not gone to gen­er­al funds,” Cagle says.

Still, ad­voc­ates like Bind­er­man are in a pretty good po­s­i­tion re­l­at­ive to early edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates in oth­er states. Polling by her group shows that 66 per­cent of Geor­gia voters would sup­port a new tax for early edu­ca­tion. Deal, in typ­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an fash­ion, is not re­cept­ive to a new tax right now, even for one of his fa­vor­ite causes. But that could change. And even if it doesn’t, Geor­gia and its preschool­ers are way ahead of much of the coun­try.

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
1 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
2 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
2 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
2 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.