Blog: The Educated Reporter

Georgia Early Ed Chief Supports Obama’s Pre-K Plan, Not the Financing

A top ranking early education official in Georgia poured water on the Obama Administration’s plan to fund a universal preschool proposal earlier this week, citing concerns over taxing cigarettes at 94 cents a pack to pay for the dramatic expansion in early learning.

Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, told reporters during an EWA webinar earlier this week that while he’s “supportive of the thinking behind the early learning initiative. … It is a real challenge, however, to begin talking about a [cigarette] tax].”

He added: “The real challenge is going to be the financing and where the money is going to come from.”

Georgia is one of the nation’s leading states in providing quality pre-K to 4-year-olds. A respected research group, National Research for Early Education Research (NIEER), puts the Peach State at the near top of its rankings that gauge states on access, family outreach and quality. As a model state with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches of government, Georgia’s support is critical to the Obama administration’s efforts to implement its early education proposal. However, the state’s leadership has rebuffed the White House on the tobacco tax more than once. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in June the tax would be a “non-starter” for him, according to The Washington Post.

[See What Sec. Duncan Said At Our Early Ed Webinar]

Still, if the funding portion of the president’s proposal can win bipartisan approval, comments by Cagle suggest other red states could get behind the policy aspects of the White House’s early education plan.                                       

Cagle said he was encouraged by the $750 million the proposal would put aside to build quality classrooms for young learners. “In our state we cannot either run a system that was all in schools because of the limited capacity within the buildings that we currently have, nor could we run it in a private child care system because there is not a sufficient number of quality providers that could implement the programs,” the commissioner said.

Cagle also spoke in favor of an early education system that didn’t prioritize access for low-income students.“Part of what you have to look at in addition to child outcomes is the buy-in the public has for the program,” Cagle said. “What we have seen consistently in states that have used targeted programs is that they become viewed often times as a welfare program. We focus on education here and we resisted being pigeonholed as a low-income, targeted program.”

“We don’t feel it’s appropriate to segregate according to income,” Cagle said.

[See EWA's Story Starter on Early Childhood]

Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst who specializes in early education at New America Foundation, echoed the commissioner’s views, but with one caveat. “Universal should be the goal, with an initial target to make sure students need the program most get it, but I do agree that having students from all socioeconomic levels is going to be ultimately beneficial to the students,” she said.

[Watch this video of Nobel Laureate James Heckman discussing the research on early education at EWA’s National Seminar]

The Obama plan, though calling itself universal, actually emphasizes expansion of pre-K for low- and moderate-income families. It would also seek to expand such programs to “middle class” families and create incentives for full day kindergarten.

Cagle and Bornfreund also outlined what reporters should look for when visiting a pre-K classroom, including whether the classes are full-day. They said journalists should pay attention to whether instructors speak to their students frequently and to note if the classroom walls are furnished with pictures, words and labels that can be viewed at the students’ eye level.

Photos: Bobby Cagle, via Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning; Laura Bornfreund, via New America Foundation