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Early education needs cause concern

May 11, 2018
Ty Tagami
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Most Georgia public school students don’t master reading early enough to give them a strong chance of success the rest of their school careers, a trend that has so alarmed superintendents, CEOs and even former military leaders that they are calling it a threat to the state’s economy and even to national security.

Students are taking the Georgia Milestones tests right now, and last year around this time, as in the years before, nearly two out of three third-graders — close to 90,000 students — failed the English test that includes reading, a crucial skill for learning other subjects in fourth grade and beyond. Research shows that as many as one in six who can’t read proficiently by third grade either drop out or won’t graduate on time. A poor education leads to low pay, a rocky work life and maybe even prison.

There is a growing movement to fix the problem by starting more kids earlier in school, but it hasn’t become a top political issue. Only the two Democratic candidates for governor are talking about the idea.

Long-running studies indicate that schooling from birth through age 3, when the brain is growing fastest, can yield enduring academic, career and even health benefits, especially for children from low-income homes. But it must be high-quality, and it’s unlikely even Georgia, a leader in pre-K, can muster the resources to reproduce at scale the kind of life-altering interventions found in successful small programs, though advocates say any inclusion of more babies and toddlers would help.

The cost of providing an earlier education to all who need it would be considerable. The Pre-K program serves 84,000 Georgia children, about 60 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, at a cost of nearly $370 million a year. There are about a half million Georgia children under age 4, and experts say it’s more expensive to serve them since they need more attention.

This election aside, there is a history in Georgia of bipartisan collaboration on educating kids before kindergarten. Democrats and Republicans worked together to develop a highly-regarded pre-K program open to all. It was founded a quarter century ago by then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, and later embraced by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, who increased the lottery-funded budget by $11 million and raised teacher pay. Deal and other Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, have also increased the state and federal tax dollars, now more than $200 million, that help the low-income working parents of 54,000 children afford preschool and other child care. Deal also developed a quality-rating system to help parents choose a child care program.