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September 10th, 2018

Pre-K: the US state of Georgia’s pre-kindergarten programme

In the early 1990s, Georgia ranked very low in terms of educational outcomes for young people in the US. To address this issue, Georgia’s Department of Education rolled out the Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) programme in 1993 under the direction of Governor Zell Miller, with funding from the newly established Lottery Fund. Pre-K has substantially improved early childhood educational outcomes in Georgia. By 2016, Georgia met eight of the National Institute’s for Early Education Research ten quality benchmarks for preschool.[1]

The initiative

In 1992, at Governor Zell Miller’s direction, Georgia’s Department of Education (DoE) launched a pilot of Pre-K for 750 children from low-income families. One year later, after the successful completion of the pilot, the DoE expanded the scheme to provide Pre-K programmes for more than 8,700 at-risk four year olds from low-income families.[4] With funding from the newly established Lottery Fund, the DoE was able to grow the programme further in 1995 and offer a universal Pre-K programme for all four year olds in the state.[5]

The challenge

As part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” campaign, Jule Sugarman launched the publicly funded preschool programme, Head Start, in 1965 to provide half-day preschool for children from low-income families. However, by the end of the 1960s, only 10 percent of the nation’s three- and four-year-olds were enrolled in the programme. In the 1980s, demand was still high and – given the lack of funding for Head Start from national government – a handful of states considered starting their own version of the programme.[2] In the 1990s, Georgia was relatively impoverished and ranked near the bottom of educational tables in the US: in their 1990 SAT scores, for example, Georgia’s high school students ranked second to last nationwide.[3]

The public impact

Georgia's Pre-K became a preschool model for other states to follow: it was the first Pre-K programme to be entirely financed by a lottery fund, and by the late 1990s it was the largest and most comprehensive preschool education system in the US.[5][6] Pre-K served 15,000 children in 1994, and continued to grow to serve more than 80,000 four-year-olds by 2015.[7][8] Additionally, the program was associated with positive outcomes for children: a longitudinal study demonstrated that students who participated in these programs had higher cognitive and academic abilities those that did not (particularly with regard to language arts, mathematics, and reductions in grade retention).  The evaluation of the programme demonstrated that the students in pre-K programs demonstrated better skills in making conversations, demonstrating a positive attitude, and coping with conflict than those who were not.[9]

Although Georgia increased its budget in 2016 to raise teachers' salaries, it was not able to meet the demand to create enough spaces for all children.[10] Accordingly, the Pre-K programme could no longer fulfil its promise to grant a place for every four-year-old child in Georgia.

Written by Pascal Roelcke

Stakeholder engagement

The key stakeholders in Pre-K were Governor Miller, the DoE, the Lottery Fund, private agencies, and the families involved in the programme. Governor Miller and the DoE worked together very effectively to set up and maintain Pre-K. The Lottery Fund supported the programme by creating a consistent revenue base. The collaboration with the private sector, as vital as it became at a later stage, proved to be difficult in the beginning. Although the DoE aimed to establish a public-private partnership from the outset, for-profit childcare providers only started applying to Pre-K in 1995, when it became a universal service and was expanded to include all four year olds.

In the meantime, Pre-K relied on public and not-for-profit agencies, who had limited resources and capacities, and this constrained the programme's growth in its first years. The public-private partnership became particularly important as the number of children involved in the programme and the need for facilities to teach grew considerably. By 1998, more than half of the children in Pre-K were allocated to non-public school programmes. At this time, parent interviews demonstrated strong support and high satisfaction rates with the Pre-K programme.[3]

Political commitment

In 1992, Pre-K was broadly supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia. This was due to the fact that, in contrast to Head Start, Pre-K did not rely on taxpayers' money but instead on money from the Lottery Fund. Rather than being perceived as a tax burden, the lottery funding of education became more popular because politicians did not have to worry about the source of the money. After the programme became universal in 1995, its popularity rose further, because it no longer focused solely on low-income children but included all four year olds. By 2014, politicians and leaders continued to be very supportive of Pre-K, while Governor Miller's continued popularity in Georgia was due in part to his role in founding the programme.[7]

With the election of State Superintendent Linda Schrenko in 1994, the course of Pre-K changed. Schrenko, a conservative Republican closely aligned with religious organisations, was responsible for overseeing Georgia's public schools. She was opposed to Pre-K because it conflicted with her conservative principles and would not bring her any political gains, being under the control of the Democrat governor. In the first 10 months in office, she cut 190 positions within the Early Childhood Division of the DoE in order to reduce the DoE's budget.[3] Consequently, the political atmosphere around Pre-K became more tense.

Public confidence

Governor Miller’s victory in the 1990 gubernatorial race was partly due to his promise to set up a lottery fund earmarked for education. “He proposed creating a Georgia lottery whose proceeds would go to two dedicated causes – college scholarships and preschool. Miller campaigned almost exclusively on that idea and won.”[7] As the Lottery Fund fulfilled its promise to finance Pre-K, public support for the programme rose: in a 1997 survey, 85 percent of the population stated that they supported the use of Lottery Funds for Pre-K.[3]

Clarity of objectives

Governor Miller and the DoE’s objective was to improve Georgia’s education system by focusing on four-year-old children from low-income families. The DoE defined the objective at the outset of the Pre-K programme as a comprehensive education development programme focusing on the needs of the child within the family, rather than traditional custodial childcare. After the revenue from the Lottery Fund exceeded the envisaged budget in 1995, Governor Miller modified the policy objective, making it a universal programme open to all four-year-olds.[3]

Strength of evidence

A year before the implementation of Pre-K in 1993, the DoE rolled out a pilot programme at 20 sites for 750 four-year-old children from low-income families. The guiding vision of the 1992 pilot programme was informed by two previous policies: Goals 2000 and Family Connections. During the pilot year, the DoE tested different service delivery models – from emulations of Head Start to family daycare – to see which model would deliver the most appropriate services for children.[3] These tests informed the design of the initiative, and they enabled Pre-K to be integrated into a comprehensive system of services for children and families in Georgia.


In November 1992, Georgia’s voters approved a constitutional amendment to establish a lottery for education. After the initial, state-funded pilot phase, the Lottery Fund set up a steady funding stream for the Pre-K programme.[3] By 1998, the Fund covered Pre-K’s entire operating costs by providing USD212 million per year, a funding mechanism which is unique to Pre-K. Access to the Lottery Fund removes the dependency on taxpayer budget cuts and enables long-term planning and financial security.[6]


Governor Miller assigned the responsibility for developing and implementing Pre-K to the DoE. To assist in creating the pilot programme, the DoE created a Pre-K advisory council comprising educators and leaders from Georgia's education sector. The Pre-K advisory committee promoted the founding of “coordinating councils”, which were “composed of the agencies involved in providing or coordinating services to participating children and families”.[3]

To administer the universal Pre-K programme more effectively, Governor Miller established in 1996 a separate office outside the DoE - the Office of School Readiness (OSR). He gave the OSR “the authority to monitor childcare licensing for all sites that receive Pre-K funding” together with oversight of the local councils.[3]


From the outset, Pre-K was committed to evaluation mechanisms. Hence, the DoE partnered with Georgia State University (GSU) to measure the programme’s social and academic impact. With the help of randomised control studies, GSU researchers found that Pre-K participants scored significantly higher than children from the comparison group on measures of academic development, communication, physical development, self-help, and social development. The Pre-K children also had significantly fewer absences and were less frequently kept down a grade than children in the comparison group.[3]


Most of the actors involved in the programme shared an alignment of interest in relation to Pre-K. The state governor, the DoE, the Lottery Fund, the coordinating councils, the for-profit providers, and GSU worked effectively to provide universal access to Pre-K in Georgia.

However, Pre-K was less well aligned with Head Start and its providers. “Governor Zell Miller's decision to create an independent state-run Prekindergarten programme - not to supplement Head Start as some states opted - had immediate consequences for Head Start in Georgia.”[3] For Head Start staff, the situation created “fear of competition for children and mistrust of the state”,[3] particularly as they were not involved in the planning of Pre-K. One of Head Start's administrators in the DoE stated that “‘there was a small group of people who advised [Governor Miller], not a broad-based coalition... Head Start was not at the table'”. The DoE addressed these relationships during the academic year 1993-94, stating that their programme was not in competition with Head Start and recommended that representatives of Head Start serve on the Pre-K coordinating councils.[3]


[1] A Comparison of State-Funded Pre-K Programs: Lessons for Indiana, February 2017, Center for Evaluation & Education Policy, Indiana University

[2] History of Preschool in the United States, K12 academics

[3] Universal Prekindergarten In Georgia: A Case Study of Georgia's Lottery-Funded Pre-K Program, Anthony Reden, May 1999, Foundation for Child Development

[4] History of Georgia's Pre-K Program, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

[5] Time to Lead Again: The Promise of Georgia Pre-K, 2008, Southern Education Foundation

[6] About Georgia's Pre-K Program, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

[7] How Georgia Got Republicans and Democrats to Embrace Universal Pre-K, Fawn Johnson, 7 May 2014, The Atlantic

[8] National preschool report: Georgia shows little growth in pre-k enrollment, Maureen Downey, 24 May 2017, myAJC from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

[9] Report on the Findings from the Early Childhood Study: 2001-2003,  Henry, Gary, T., Henderson, Laura, W., Ponder, Bentley D., Gordon, Craig S., Mashburn, Andrew, and Rickman, Dana (2003c).'s_pre-k_program_Report_of_the_findings_from_the_Georgia_Early_Childhood_Study_2002-03

[10] Free Pre-K in Georgia: How Does It Work? April Lentini, 16 June 2016, GeorgiaGov

Photo by Tina Floersch on Unsplash

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