By Maria Saporta
Early childhood education advocates in Georgia showed their political chops Monday when they invited candidates for Governor, U.S. Senate and State School Superintendent to a forum at Georgia Public Broadcasting.
It was a strategic way to get exposure, and even commitments, from the elected leaders in Georgia three weeks before the General Election on Nov. 4.
The three candidates for governor showed up in person — Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, Democrat Jason Carter and Libertarian Andrew Hunt.
U.S. Senate Candidate Michelle Nunn appeared in person while her Republican opponent, David Perdue, sent a video-taped message. State School Superintendent Democratic Candidate Valarie Wilson showed up while her Republican opponent, Richard Woods, sent a statement to be read in his absence.
Of course no candidate spoke out against early childhood education and Pre-K programs. That would be like speaking out against motherhood and apple pie.
But the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) was seeking specific answers about what the state could do to increase the accessibility, affordability and quality of early education programs.
At the same time, GEEARS leaders used the occasion to share with a packed studio of engaged citizens the latest research and polling data on the value and popularity of early education.
What made the session even more powerful was continuity.
Stephanie Blank, chair of GEEARS, recalled that “exactly four years and one week ago, just a month after GEEARS was founded,” the organization held a similar event where it unveiled its vision to people who were running for office in 2010.
The vision – by 2020, all children will enter kindergarten in Georgia on a path ready to learn.
“We hope at the end of this, you will leave this with a renewed sense of commitment,” Blank told the audience, adding that research continues to show how crucial the first five years of life are to a child’s ultimate success.
“We don’t get a do-over for those first five years,” Blank said. Although one can mitigate some of the problems that develop later in life, it often is more difficult and expensive to address them when children are older. “It makes much more sense to do it right the first time.”
GEEARS commissioned two pollsters — Republican Whit Ayers from Washington, D.C. and Beth Schapiro of Atlanta — to find out what kind of public support exists for early childhood education.
Likely voters in Georgia were asked whether the state should hold the line on taxes and spending or make sure that there is sufficient funding for needs such as education. More than two-thirds (68 percent) said it was more important to ensure adequate funding while 28 percent prefer holding the line on taxes. Majority support to fund education held true for every party affiliation.
Asked if they would support using a portion of lottery funds to provide voluntary Pre-K programs for 4-year olds, 87 percent were supportive compared to 83 percent four years ago.
At the national level, Georgia voters were asked if they favored a Congressional plan to expand access to early childhood programs. There was 74 percent support for the Congressional plan to improve early childhood education.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, gave Georgia an aspirational goal – to reach every child with a high quality program.
“Georgia does better than most states,” Barnett said. “But its not in the top tier. With a few small changes, Georgia could move in the top tier states – reducing class size like North Carolina and Alabama. “
Barnett said that Washington, D.C. has 90 percent participation while Florida has 80 percent participation.
Gov. Deal said Georgia has about 60 percent voluntary participation in its Pre-K program, and the state’s early learning initiatives had been a national model.
But Barnett said times had changed.
“Georgia can do better,” Barnett said. “It could once again be the national leader in Pre-K – make high quality the norm; make sure every classroom is high quality; and make sure there’s a reliability of state funding. All of these things could be done by 2020. Georgia could once again be the national leader in pre-K. Georgia needs to do this for its children, and Georgia needed to do this for its future.
Blank then spoke to each of the candidates – at least all the ones who bothered to attend the program.
David Perdue video-taped message said that both his parents were educators, and so is his wife.
“Educating our kids early is more important than ever,” Perdue said. But he said “sending more money and power to Washington is not going to solve our problem.”
Asked about her positions, Nunn said: “I can’t think of anything more important than early childhood education.” The fact that she had come to the GEEARS forum showed how much a priority it was, she said, an obvious swipe at Perdue.
Nunn then spoke of the need to have universal access to Pre-K so there would not be a waiting list of children seeking care.
“We know we have a ways to go here in Georgia,” she said. “We need to have a practical conversation about expanding health care to all Georgians.”
In closing, she said that one of the pillars of her campaign was making sure kids at age 5 came to school ready to learn.
When it came to State School Superintendents, Blank read a statement from Republican Richard Woods that said he has been “a tireless advocate for early childhood education,” and that as the next superintendent, he said he would work to help make sure children had a solid foundation before they entered school.
Democrat Valarie Wilson said she would work to align the state’s curriculum with early childhood education programs. “You get to understand where the children are and see the continuum of a child’s growth.”
Then three candidates for governor were questioned separately by Blank.
Libertarian Andrew Hunt said his parents founded the first Montessori school in Georgia, so he is a living example of early education. He said he differed from his opponents because he believes in transformational change in education instead of incremental change. He also said he would be willing to support horse racing, if revenues were to support education.
Hunt also advocated parents having educational savings accounts that could be used for early childhood education through college.
Democrat Jason Carter said he had a “deep-seated” respect for investments in early education.
“We have to recognize there’s no dollar that is better invested than in early education for the economic health of the state,” said Carter, who then criticized cuts that Gov. Deal made several years ago in the Pre-K program. “We went far to far in the cuts. My focus for the future is making sure we are making investments that set us up for success down the road.”
When asked how he would pay for investments in early education, Carter said there was $286 million in Georgia Lottery funds above the required reserve. “Think about what impact it would have on pre-K,” Carter said, adding that it could help attract and retain the best quality teachers.
“The overall vision for the state is that we have to continue to cut and cut,” Carter said. “That’s not true. We have to continue to make sure we are investing.”
Gov. Deal closed out the session, remembering commitments he had made four years ago to develop a quality rating for the state’s childcare providers.
“Some 30 percent of all providers are now part of that system,” Deal said. “By 2017, we will have 100 percent of our providers participating in our rating system”
Deal also said he has instituted incentives to train early education teachers. And he said Georgia is one of the two highest states in terms of having 4-year-olds participate in early education programs.
“I think we have come a long way in the four years I’ve been governor,” Deal said, adding that the state was going to continue to see improvement.
The biggest winner of Monday’s session was GEEARS – it kept an important issue at the forefront of the people who are running for Georgia’s key offices.
Although GEEARS does not make political endorsements, it makes sure that no matter who gets elected in November, that early childhood education will be a winner at the polls.