In his re-election bid, Gov. Nathan Deal is taking credit for restoring Georgia’s nationally lauded and lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program to its traditional 180 days a year. He’s billing himself as the candidate in the race who is the "real Deal" and promoting that change to pre-k on his campaign website as one of the "real results" of his administration.
And why wouldn’t he? Every year, thousands of Georgia parents who might otherwise be paying for child care are sending their 4-year-olds to free pre-k in 3,800 classes, statewide. About 82,000 children are currently enrolled in Georgia pre-k, and about 6,000 more are on waiting lists. Arguably, only the lottery-funded HOPE college scholarship program is more popular.
But can the governor take credit for pre-k being back on track this school year with a traditional 180-day calendar? We decided a deeper look was needed.
Deal, a Republican and former congressman, became Georgia’s governor in January 2011 and quickly took on a subject that lawmakers had been discussing but largely sidestepping: With revenue from lottery tickets falling and program expenses rising, could HOPE and pre-k survive for the long term?
By 2010, the combined annual expenditures for pre-k and HOPE had started to exceed annual lottery revenue dedicated to the two programs. The Lottery Reserve Fund, which had reached a peak balance of nearly $1 billion, had been tapped to fund deficits generated by HOPE. By 2011, the reserve fund’s balance was under $600 million, according to a 2012 report by the nonprofit, liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Deal proposed major changes, including converting pre-k from a full-day to a part-day program, but he abandoned that proposal after a public outcry. As an alternative, he asked lawmakers to reduce the pre-k school year from 180 to 160 days, for a savings estimated at $22 million a year.
The governor also recommended cutting more than 300 pre-k classes across the state, forcing some teachers out of jobs and requiring the teachers that remained to take on extra students.
Lawmakers went along with the governor’s recommendations, which, according to the Budget and Policy Institute, reduced lottery funding for pre-k by about $54 million, to $355 million in fiscal 2012. Teachers who stayed received smaller paychecks, and many of them bolted for jobs in kindergarten, first grade and elsewhere within a year.
Deal subsequently recommended -- and lawmakers approved -- restoring 10 days to the 2012-2013 pre-k school year and returning to the traditional 180-day school year for the current school year, which started in August. The larger class sizes, resulting in an estimated $30 million annual savings, remain.
Jennifer Talaber, a spokeswoman for Deal’s re-election campaign, said the governor can rightly claim credit.
"Governor Deal's reforms stabilized our lottery-funded programs, which were on the brink of bankruptcy," she said. "Those tough changes -- and the strong leadership it took to achieve them -- are why we can afford 180 days now."
We asked Talaber to share with us any data that the governor had when he made the decision to recommend cutting the program days, as well as when he recommended restoring them. She referred us to previous reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, told the newspaper in 2012 that the governor was able to push to restore the pre-k days because the cuts made in 2011 stabilized the program and "yielded more savings than anticipated."
Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said the shortening of the pre-k year did "damage from which there may not be immediate recovery."
"Teachers may view these jobs as less secure, and this lowers the quality of teacher that can be attracted," Barnett said.
But, he said, "restoring the program is a very good thing to have done. If there were hard choices that had to be made to make that happen, then there is some credit for that."
As for the long-term financial prospects for pre-k and HOPE -- both considered education game-changers for Georgia -- there’s not much talk about that these days. Lottery revenue dedicated to education has grown since it plunged 4 percent, or $39 million, in 2011. It was up 7 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013, according to the Georgia Lottery Corp. And the reserve fund had $734 million as of June 30, 2013, records show.
Our conclusion: Gov. Nathan Deal was the driving force behind the push to reinstate the days to Georgia pre-k. But he also initiated the cuts, and they had consequences, including the loss of experienced teachers. Those are important details that Deal doesn’t mention when he states that restoring pre-k to 180 days was one of the "real results" of his term as governor. Therefore, we rate his statement as Half True.