Pre-kindergarten classes on chopping block as state slashes spending

The head of the agency that provides pre-kindergarten classes to more than 80,000 4-year-olds said Tuesday during a Senate committee hearing budget cuts could lead to teacher furloughs. Lawmakers suggested teachers could work the same hours for less money. Getty Images

Fewer students, empty classrooms and reduced teacher paychecks could be in store for the state lottery-funded pre-K program that teaches Georgia’s youngest schoolchildren letters and numbers.

Georgia’s agency heads are working to reduce spending by 14% as budget planners expect state revenues to suffer for a while in a badly wounded economy. For the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, that could mean 4,000 fewer children enrolled in the program that serves more than 80,000 young students. The doors of about 180 classrooms across the state could close too, Commissioner Amy Jacobs told members of the Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee Tuesday.

“As you can imagine, there’s no way to reduce the program by $51 million without impacting teachers and students,” Jacobs said.

Georgia was one of the first states to offer universal pre-K, meaning parents of 4-year-olds can enroll their children regardless of family income. Slots are limited, however, and parents typically face a waiting list of between 3,000 and 5,000 children.

Children who do enroll in pre-K next year could spend less time in the classroom than their older siblings with the reductions Jacobs outlined. If the cuts are made permanent, preschool students will have 167 days of instruction, down from 180, and teachers will have less paid planning time – four days, down from 10.

Pre-K teachers would not be paid for the days they do not teach or plan, so they would effectively receive a 10% pay cut. Georgia’s budget woes follow the state-ordered shutdown of businesses in April to contain the spread of COVID-19 and spending for the pre-K program that was penciled in for $392 million in lottery money a few months ago is under the knife.

Pre-K lead teachers, and especially their assistants, made barely enough in the Great Recession era to scrape by. Gov. Brian Kemp set aside $14.1 million to give preschool teachers a pay raise in the upcoming school year after a $16.5 million bump last year, both designed to help retain teachers.

Children would be better served if their teachers simply took the pay cut but held class the same number of days, said subcommittee member Sen. Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican.  

“Their pay reduction would be the same, regardless of whether they took it by furlough days or by a temporary pay scale reduction,” he said. “Everybody has to make sacrifices on a temporary basis, but we’re imposing the sacrifice on the public, and in this case, on the children.”

Cutting teacher pay and asking them to work the same hours would carry implications for other state employees, said Toccoa Republican Sen. John Wilkinson.

“I think we all believe in being consistent,” he said. “Of course, if you’re going to ask teachers to work the same amount of time for less pay, I think when you get to the Department of Transportation and all the other state agencies, in the past, when they made these cuts, they’ve taken furlough days, and what they’ve done is just not been paid for the days they didn’t work. So I think we need to be very careful and look at the big picture.”

Teachers will want to be paid for working, Jacobs said.

“I can’t imagine that a pre-K teacher, or any teacher for that matter, would be favorable to that, if they’re required to work the same number of days but are receiving less pay,” she said.

Phyllis Scott, director of Kids Haven Learning Center in Acworth, agreed. She said she’s seen teachers go from just getting by their first years on the job to living comfortably after receiving pay raises, and teachers who do not have to worry about affording their bills are always more effective.

“They bought stuff for the kids all the time anyway, but now they would purchase it and it wasn’t an issue, ‘Oh, I got some treats for the kids to send home with them,’ or ‘I’m buying this book for every child,’ and it wasn’t an issue because they could actually afford it,” she said. “When you don’t bring your problems in the center, you have a much better work environment, and the kids feel it. The kids see it, and they’re happy to be with you when you’re happy.”

Jacobs’ recommendation also eliminates funding for extended day care for children from low-income families. Working families can still bring their children early or keep them in school late, but the state will no longer foot the bill.

Some parents are only able to hold a job because of the extended care service, Scott said. Some of the students are dropped off before the sun comes up and stay through dinnertime.

“A lot of the children are with us anywhere between eight to 10 hours a day,” Scott said. “So if they’re with us more than with their parents, we play a huge role. And they’re learning through our interactions with them. We become the second mom.”

Georgia’s pre-K program is funded by the Georgia Lottery, as is the HOPE Scholarship. Lottery revenue has remained relatively strong, despite the coronavirus pandemic’s damage to the state economy.

The lottery has a reserve fund of more than $1 billion dollars, $700 million of which is available unrestricted, said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education.

“I’ve heard people over time say, ‘Well, we have to make it fair, we have to have cuts across the board for fairness,’ but again, I go back to the fact that it looks a lot different when you make cuts to pre-K, because that means you’re not serving families, and their kids will be home at a time when brain development matters the most,” Binderman said.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Ellis Black told the other committee members he is opposed to across-the-board cuts, and that he hopes the state’s finances will be in better shape by the time senators vote on a budget in June.

“Hopefully, closer to the end, we will have a better fix on the actual revenue numbers and actually have a better understanding of the revenue we have coming in and, hopefully, we won’t have to see cuts as draconian as what we’re looking at here,” he said.