By Guest Columnist EMILY PELTON, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, which seeks to ensure the well-being of all children in Georgia
Last week, Georgians all over the state united for a great cause. In the midst of our supercharged and occasionally exhausting pre-election environment, hundreds of leaders found one thing to agree on: quality early education is important for Georgia’s kids.
Oct. 3 through Oct. 7 marked the sixth annual Georgia Pre-K Week, where scores of elected officials and community leaders, including mayors, commissioners, congressmen, state senators and representatives, as well as the governor and First Lady, visited early learning centers across the state to read to children and get an intimate look at what early learning means.
Data consistently shows that when children attend high-quality early learning centers, their life trajectory is likely to improve. Those children are more likely to achieve academically and socially and read on grade level by third grade. This turns out to be a huge milestone for children, since it’s the critical point where kids move from learning to read to “reading to learn”
Reaching these early milestones means that kids are more likely to graduate from high school and stay employed, and less likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. This is good for our kids now, who will thrive from the nurturing and education they receive as youngsters, and good for our economy later, which will benefit from a stronger and better-equipped work force.
In fact, it turns out that the early learning industry is good for our workforce now.
A recent study found that $2.5 billion in annual earnings and $2.2 billion in ancillary economic activity resulted in a positive $4.7 billion annual economic impact on Georgia’s economy. The early learning industry employs more than 67,000 Georgians.
By providing a safe and stimulating environment for children, early learning centers also help parents hold down sustainable jobs and avoid being distracted about their children’s well-being while at work. This is important, because nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s children under 6 years old have parents in the work force.
This year, our state will spend $358 million of Georgia Lottery proceeds on Pre-K for 4-year-olds, which will serve nearly 82,000 children of all economic levels and backgrounds at more than 1,800 centers statewide. Georgia’s Pre-K program is overseen by Bright from the Start, part of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), a well-run state agency that ensures quality care and education of our youngest citizens.
DECAL’s attention to access and quality have resulted in measurably improved outcomes for thousands of children and brought Georgia national recognition. In fact, we are only one of seven states (including Washington, D.C.) that provide high quality care to more than half of our 4-year-olds.
One key part of delivering on quality early education is training and valuing our pre-K workers. The recent action by the Georgia Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal to increase Pre-K teacher pay is a great step toward reducing turnover and improving incentives for talented teachers to stay in this key industry. Still, Pre-K teachers earn less than comparably qualified K-12 teachers, and so there is more room to strengthen the system. Sustained efforts are also needed to continue to expand the availability of Quality Rated early childcare centers to more regions of the state, especially those that are economically or geographically marginalized.
Pre-K Week is not only a great event that brings us back to a fundamental shared community priority (our children), it’s also a great public-private partnership.
Voices for Georgia’s Children partners with DECAL, as well as with Synovus Bank, Georgia Power, and 21 child-serving organizations, to make Pre-K Week a success every year. We also team with elected officials, school board members, and business leaders who take time from their busy schedules to spend “quality time” with a room full of 4-year olds. Last week, more than 122 leaders visited nearly 200 centers throughout Georgia, and more events are planned throughout the month.
Despite the impressive data and the excitement of mobilizing people, for me personally, the best part of the event is always attending the visits. They never disappoint. I have witnessed men and women in suits descend onto the floor laughing, lead a room full of children in “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” dance with giant costumed characters, smile as children ascend them like a jungle gym, and frequently show quiet generosity by donating their favorite children’s books to the school’s library. It’s a treat to catch our important public and community leaders in that magical moment of remembering exactly why they decided to become public servants and leaders in the first place.
A special thanks from Voices to all who participated in Pre-K Week this year and for the amazing contributions of people all over Georgia who deliver quality early education to Georgia’s kids every day. We celebrate and salute you!