For many years, the State of Georgia had been experiencing exceptionally high student dropout and teenage pregnancy rates. Georgia's Governor Zell Miller decided to attack the problem at its root by expanding pre-kindergarten opportunities to all of the State's four-year-olds, regardless of their family income. The Governor based his decision on past research indicating that students with strong preschool experiences are more successful in school, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to drop out of school. By some estimates, every dollar invested in early childhood education saves $7.16 in later costs to society. Although federally-funded Head Start provided early childhood education for low-income children, the program was offered only in partial day settings and failed to take a comprehensive approach to the pre-kindergarten education that is instrumental in ensuring productive youth.
In 1992, Georgia launched the Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Program as a limited pilot program for 750 youth supported by general state revenue. Thanks to new Lottery for Education funds, the Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Program was implemented universally in 1995, incorporating an additional 45,000 children. All four-year-olds in Georgia now had the opportunity to develop an advanced foundation of appropriate learning skills and activities that would enable them to be successful throughout their school experience.
The State utilized innovative public-private partnerships to facilitate the rapid expansion of pre-kindergarten services while diminishing its actual investment in capital outlay expenses on building and expanding facilities. Governor Miller established the Office of School Readiness to administer the program and to provide funding for operating expenses and the salaries and benefits for lead teachers and teaching assistants. The Office of School Readiness contracts to private schools that provide pre-kindergarten programs, and the agency's staff visits these schools four times a year for quality insurance. By contracting for services to private schools, the program has been able to serve a larger number of children without spending a single dollar of state funding on constructing new classrooms. Parents are able to choose the most appropriate program for their child from over 1,600 facilities, including local school systems, private and state colleges, and private nonprofit and for-profit child care centers.
Georgia's program takes a holistic approach to learning by providing support services and resources to families who request assistance and by encouraging parents to become active participants in their child's education. In 1996, of the 59,000 children enrolled in the program, 30,000 were from low-income families, each of whom was assigned a resource coordinator. These at-risk children receive additional services, such as free or reduced-price breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, free transportation to and from school, and free or subsidized before and after school care. The low-income parents are also provided with a variety of opportunities to obtain needed health services for their children, attend information seminars, access literacy classes, and obtain Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Educators, parents, and the media all strongly support the Voluntary Pre-kindergarten Program, and the preliminary results are equally encouraging. Children who attended pre-kindergarten programs achieved higher scores on measures of academic development and achievement at the end of first grade than a matched sample of their counterparts. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, pre-kindergarten children scored higher than the national average by five percentile points. Pre-kindergarten children also had a higher level of school attendance than the comparison group, who was absent over 26 percent more days than the pre-kindergarten children. Over 96 percent of the parents of pre-kindergarten children believed positive results from attending preschool were still evident in their children at the completion of first grade. By taking a pioneering step in universalizing preschool, Georgia has made it possible for all of its youth to gain invaluable experiences that will shape the remainder of their academic careers, strengthening the State's entire educational system and brightening its future.