ATLANTA --- A plan to scale back Georgia's free, full-day pre-kindergarten program -- the first of its kind in the U.S. -- 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 from 61/2 hours to four hours, which GOP leaders say would save the 84,000-student program about $54 million. Deal, who recently announced a dramatic overhaul plan that he says is needed to keep lottery-funded initiatives such as pre-kindergarten from going broke, also proposed adding 5,000 slots to ease a nearly 10,000-child wait list.
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 Tuesday. He has said schools could trim lunchtime and naptime to give students more learning time.
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.
Bobby Cagle, the head of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said Deal wants to help districts by providing more funding for aftercare programs for at-risk children and for transportation. But Cagle 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 hearing Friday 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 in Snellville, choked back tears as she told legislators she wouldn't be able to continue teaching if she made less money because of the shorter day.
"There are many teachers already investigating other employment," she said.
Atlanta teacher Ginger James said she would be willing to accept two more students in her class 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.
Lawmakers seemed to hold open the possibility of larger class sizes but noted that the only money they can work with is from the lottery. That constraint has others, including Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, calling for the state to find extra money for pre-K. 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," said Benfield, whose 5-year-old daughter attends a state pre-K program.
Some school districts might 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.
Steve Barnett, a co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said the cuts were a big step back in Georgia. About 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.