ATLANTA — A plan to scale back Georgia’s free, full-day pre-kindergarten program — the first of its kind in the United States — to a half-day has teachers fearing shrunken paychecks and working parents scrambling to find day care for their 4-year-olds.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed shortening the pre-k day to from six and a half hours to four hours, which GOP leaders say would save the 84,000-student program some $54 million. Deal, who recently announced a dramatic overhaul plan that he says is needed to keep lottery-funded initiatives like pre-kindergarten from going broke, also proposed adding 5,000 slots to ease a nearly 10,000-child wait list.
However, a shorter school day has teachers worried about making ends meet. Parents and teachers alike fear children, especially from low-income families, won’t be prepared for kindergarten and beyond. And some parents already are scrambling to find extra care for their children this fall.
“Both my husband and I work, so it is not workable with my schedule to have my child done at noon,” said Karen Cooper, whose daughter is set to go into pre-k in the fall.
Cooper’s 5-year-old son flourished in pre-k last fall, and she wants her daughter to have the same chance, she said.
“He learned a lot, and it was really good as an introduction to real school,” Cooper said.
Many other states and private preschools already operate with a four-hour day, and schools should have plenty of time to teach if they plan well, Deal said when he announced the overhaul last week. He has said that schools could trim lunchtime and naptime to give students more learning time.
However, studies show attending pre-k gives poor students a better chance of graduating high school and going to college. Advocates fear low-income families could suffer the most, noting that 60 percent of children in Georgia’s pre-k program come from families that earn less than $40,000 a year.
Georgia has one of the country’s biggest pre-k programs and once enrolled a higher percentage of 4-year-olds than any other state. But the state, which has just more than half of all 4-year-olds enrolled, has slipped behind Oklahoma and Florida in recent years as the program’s growth slowed.
Bobby Cagle, head of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said the governor wants to help districts cope with the half-day schedule by providing more funding for aftercare programs for at-risk children and for transportation.
But he acknowledged the extra funding would not be enough to cover all the costs.
The state also is looking to eliminate 112 counselors who help pre-k students transition to kindergarten.
At a Friday hearing at the Capitol, pre-k supporters turned out in force urging lawmakers not to balance the budget at the expense of the state’s youngest students.
Emily Cunningham, who teaches at Sunshine House in Snellville, choked back tears as she told legislators she wouldn’t be able to continue teaching pre-k if she made less money because of the shorter day.
“There are many teachers already investigating other employment,” she said.
Atlanta Kids-R-Us teacher Ginger James agreed. She said she’d be willing to accept up to two more students in her classroom to keep the program intact.
“If you do hurt pre-k, you may not need to worry about HOPE in the future,” James said, referring to the scholarship program that covers tuition at public institutions for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
Lawmakers seemed to hold open the possibility of larger class sizes, but noted the only money they can work with is that from the lottery. That constraint has others, including Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, calling for the state to find extra money for the pre-k budget.
Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta, said the state is going backward because children need a full day to be prepared for kindergarten.
“This is not going to help working parents and it is not going to work for providers. I don’t think it’s been thought through properly,” said Stuckey Benfield, whose 5-year-old daughter attends a state pre-k program.
Some school districts may end their pre-k programs altogether because it’s so difficult to find teachers willing to work part-time.
That could be especially problematic in rural areas, where a public school is the only place available for a pre-k program. It would leave parents in those communities with no options if the programs are closed, said Herb Garrett, director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said the cuts were a big step back in Georgia. Some 40 states offer pre-k programs, and most of those with programs as large as Georgia’s give parents the option of full- and part-time.
Children whose parents work and those from low-income families could wind up being moved out of pre-k entirely and into daycare, where they won’t be preparing for kindergarten, Barnett said.
Decatur resident Patricia Moncure, who got a letter from her children’s school on Thursday about the possible cuts, was more blunt.
“I am absolutely speechless,” said Moncure, whose daughter is going into pre-k in the fall. “These kids are going to be dumber than doorknobs.”