President Barack Obama singled out Georgia's early childhood education program in his State of the Union address, but the state has stumbled to meet its goal of enrolling every child in pre-K since it made that a priority two decades ago.
Obama was set to visit an early childhood learning center near Atlanta on Thursday, perhaps to make a case for the benefits of universal pre-K, an initiative the president said could help reduce teen pregnancy, violent crime and lead to more students graduating from high school. A closer look at Georgia's program, however, reveals a lot of challenges.
Georgia made a commitment to universal pre-K in 1995 and it's been a slow climb, with about 60 percent of eligible children currently enrolled. And Georgia's high school graduation rate is among the lowest in the nation.
"While we're proud of our pre-K program, it really needs to be expanded so we're reaching all of our children," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the largest professional teacher organization in the state. "It's a matter of funding. There's just not enough slots to meet the complete need our state has."
The president plans to visit the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, which is considered a success. It has about 350 students, ranging in age from 6-weeks-old to 5-years-old.
"In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance," Obama said in his speech.
The Georgia school is in Decatur, which is just east of Atlanta and home to many college professors and other highly educated professionals who place great value on education. Many move there specifically for the city's relatively strong schools.
In surrounding DeKalb County, however, the story is different. The county school system is in danger of losing accreditation for what one official described as "conflict and chaos." Other school systems in the area have struggled as well.
Atlanta Public Schools were rocked by a standardized test cheating scandal several years ago and the school system in nearby Clayton County had its accreditation revoked in 2009, though it has since been restored. The K-12 system statewide has seen repeated budget cuts and some districts have resorted to teacher furloughs.
About 60 percent of the state's students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch and 25 percent live in abject poverty, which also has an impact on both pre-K enrollment and future educational success, Callahan said.
"Those children need (pre-K) the most and sometimes they come from family situations where those families are less able to navigate the application process, they're less aware of what's going on in these kinds of programs and less likely to take advantage of them," he said.
The state's pre-K program currently enrolls about 84,000 students, and about 8,000 children are on a waiting list, said Reg Griffin, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. Some other eligible children may be enrolled in private pre-K programs, he said.
Georgia's pre-K program began with a pilot program for at-risk kids in 1992 and was opened to all eligible 4-year-olds in 1995. It has been funded by the state lottery system since the start, but as lottery revenues decreased in recent years, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and state legislators have had to make cuts.
The program was shortened by 20 days in 2011, though Deal got lawmakers to restore 10 of those days last year and has proposed adding back the other 10 in his current budget proposal.
The program currently gets about 34 percent of the state lottery money, with the rest going to the HOPE scholarship fund to help qualifying Georgia students attend college. The pre-K program's budget in the current fiscal year is $298 million.
The Georgia Department of Early Care recently researched whether pre-K students showed signs of doing better in kindergarten, the first such study in the program's history, Griffin said.
"We were really pleased that across the board the program was preparing students for kindergarten and placing them on a trajectory toward success in K-12 and beyond that to college and career," he said.
But only about 67 percent of high school students graduate in Georgia, ahead of only two other states and the District of Columbia, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, plans to be in Georgia for the president's appearance. He doesn't have details but he expects the president's initiative to include matching federal funding to help increase participation in early childhood learning programs.
With its pre-K framework and commitment already in place, a state like Georgia would be in a prime position to benefit and could easily get to 90 percent enrollment within a few years, Barnett said.
"If the federal government steps up and offers matching funds, can they make it possible for Georgia to actually serve all the kids? For me, that's why Georgia's a great example," he said. "You have the expressed will to do this. You have some pretty good standards in place."