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Georgia lawmakers want smaller pre-k classes, more teacher pay
Charter Schools

Dave Williams, Capitol Beat

An ad hoc committee of Georgia House lawmakers is recommending smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay, and more money for operating and capital costs to beef up the state’s pre-kindergarten program.

With few changes in state support to the lottery-funded program since its inception 30 years ago, pre-kindergarten enrollment in Georgia has fallen from a high of 82,868 students in 2012 to 73,462.

A report released by the House Working Group on Early Childhood Education Tuesday blames the decline on an inability to find teachers willing to work at state-funded salaries and inadequate state funding for opening and operating classrooms.

“We know when our children start fast in school, educational outcomes are improved dramatically,” said House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, who formed the ad hoc committee last spring. “One of the best predictors of educational success is having a strong pre-kindergarten program.”

“This is very much a workforce development issue,” added Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, who chaired the committee. “The more children have access to pre-k, the more parents can reenter the workforce.”

The committee is recommending reducing the average pre-kindergarten class size from 22 – a move the state made during the budget crunch the Great Recession brought on more than decade ago – to 20.

The report also proposed raising the salaries of assistant teachers in the pre-k program from $20,190 per year to $25,700, which would align their pay with K-12 paraprofessionals, and increasing pay for lead pre-k teachers to the state’s salary schedule for K-12 public school teachers.

“There’s no substitute for equalizing salaries, to recognize the great important work these folks are doing,” Burns said.

The committee also is recommending updating the pre-k formula for operations from the current $8,000 per pre-k classroom per year, which has not been changed since 2004, to $30,000. Both public schools and private pre-k providers for the first time would get state funding for construction of pre-k classrooms.

The various recommendations in the report would cost just more than $100 million per year, funds that would come from the Georgia Lottery Corp.’s healthy budget reserves.

Jones said the goal is to put the state in a position to offer pre-k o every parent in Georgia who wants to enroll their 4-year-olds in either a public or private pre-k program.

The percentage of children enrolled in pre-k varies widely across the state. Some counties have waiting lists as high as 339, with 2,714 youngsters statewide on a waiting list. Statewide, only 53% of eligible children are enrolled in pre-k.

“I’m hopeful we will see a more robust offering of public pre-k,” Jones said. “I’m confident we can change what has been happening over the last few years.”

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