By Maria Saporta
Both top candidates for governor strongly support spending lottery dollars on Pre-K education programs, and they believe it’s at least as important as the popular HOPE scholarship.
The candidates addressed the “Early Education Summit” held Tuesday at Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The Pre-K program and the HOPE merit-based college scholarship were implemented after former Gov. Zell Miller was able to pass the Georgia Lottery with education as its beneficiary.
“Zell Miller said it correctly,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Democratic candidate for governor. “Pre-K is more important than HOPE because of the longer lasting effect.”
Then Barnes shot a quick aside to his opponent — former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, the Republican candidate for governor. “No Nathan, I’m not advocating doing away with HOPE,” Barnes said.
Surprisingly, when it was Deal’s turn to speak, the former congressman seemed to agree with Barnes.
“Universal Pre-K is as important, if not more important, than the scholarship program at the college level,” said Deal, who explained that lottery proceeds are relatively flat, and as college costs have gone up, so any increase in lottery funds tend to be spent on HOPE.
Hearing both candidates endorse early education programs was music to the ears of the recently formed Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS).
The organization, which is chaired by philanthropist Stephanie Blank, is working to make early education a top priority for the state. The three-hour summit, which was webcast live, included leaders from around the state and the nation.
Barnes said that when he was governor, he had started the Georgia Early Learning Initiative (GELI) as a pilot program. “We were spreading it throughout the state,” he said. “We need to make sure every public school offers Pre-K. “
The biggest discrepancy in having children ready to learn is among income groups. Children from poorer families are less prepared when they enter school than those from more affluent families.
“If we don’t do this, I will tell you, we will lose our economic competitiveness in the next generation,” Barnes said, adding that the state has to “quit looking for the quick fix, and quit looking for the silver bullet” in trying to solve the problem.
Deal said he favored incentives to get private organizations to invest in early education, and he said retirees were a resource that could be tapped.
Then he told his own story as the son of two public school teachers. “My mother was a first grade teacher,” Deal said, adding that from the time he was three, he would go to school with her. “It took me three years to get through first grade,” he said jokingly.
Deal also repeated the mantra — that every child should be able to read at grade level by the time they are eight years old. Part of the problem, Deal said, is that the brightest students often are bored in school, and that they lose interest.
“We should adopt a ‘move on when you’re ready’ program, let the move on to keep them engaged.”