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
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.

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