Debate over Georgia Pre-K program after study finds it has little effect on children

ATLANTA — A seven-year study of Georgia’s Pre-K Program produced disappointing findings on its long-term effects on children.

The study, authored by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, concluded that the benefits for students were mostly gone by the end of the second grade.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher found that the Georgia study reached similar conclusions as other studies involving Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program and the federally-funded Head Start program.

“Those gains don’t last. They don’t stick. And by the time the children are in the early elementary grades, you can’t tell the difference between kids who went to a pre-K program and kids who did not, at least in terms of what they’re learning in school,” said Russ Whitehurst, an education researcher formerly with the Brookings Institution.

The study’s findings were at odds with the impressions that Georgia parents and politicians had about pre-K, which has received more than $7 billion in funds from the Georgia Lottery since 1993.

Total enrollment approached 1.2 million 4-year-olds.

The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute and other supporters called for expanding the state program beyond the annual enrollment of about 84,000 children, citing widespread difficulties balancing work and childcare exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Whitehurst said the study’s findings don’t support that initiative.

“I’m not sure how much the public has heard the message and ignored it, or simply not heard the message,” said Whitehurst. “They clearly have drunk the Kool-Aid and want to spend more public money in this direction.”

Children “displayed a pattern of growth on most measures during pre-K and kindergarten that was not sustained through second grade,” the long-term study noted.

The scholar who headed the study told Belcher the study results were not surprising, but that, “it’s unreasonable to expect any one year in a child’s life to be a magic bullet.”

“You can’t expect that the impact of one year alone is going to be the only thing that’s going to affect these children’s lives,” said Dr. Ellen Peisner Feinberg, a senior research scientist at UNC’s School of Education.

During Belcher’s previous reporting on Tennessee’s pre-K program, one of the authors told him that fellow experts in the field didn’t want to hear disappointing news.

Whitehurst agreed.

“If there’s any way to explain away the lack of positive results or, in some cases, negative results, you’ll see that happening,” he said.

Peisner-Feinberg acknowledged that educators had unreasonably high expectations for early childhood education when Head Start launched in the 1960′s, but believed that expectations are more realistic now.

Whitehurst called for a re-thinking of pre-K, targeting money toward families with greater needs.

“I’m not opposed to spending money on young children and their families. But this is just not the best way to do it,” he said. "It’s a school readiness investment that doesn’t, in fact, impact school readiness.

Peisner-Feinberg attributed the academic decline over time to the loss of the “sustaining environment” children had in pre-K.

“We’re not seeing that children are continuing to get that strong, sustaining environment that is enabling them to continue to make the gains that we saw earlier on,” she explained. “What you need to do is look and say, ‘Why might that be the case?’”