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Free Pre-K in Georgia: How Does It Work?

June 16, 2016
A boy and girl, ready for school.

After years of paying for child care, your kid is finally old enough and qualified for lottery-funded Georgia's Pre-K. Yay! But there is a catch: You may have heard that spots are limited and you have to get your kid on a waiting list (a kind of raffle) to take part in the state-funded Pre-K lottery. Just how does this work, anyway?

What Is Georgia’s Pre-K?

Georgia’s Pre-K Program is free public preschool for all eligible 4-year-old children in Georgia. As of 2016, children who are 4-years old by the Sept. 1 cutoff date, are eligible to attend this state-lottery funded educational program. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, also known as Bright From the Start, helps plan instruction in the Pre-K classrooms.

Georgia’s Pre-K program is a nationally recognized success. It’s the nation’s first universal Pre-Kindergarten program entirely funded by the state lottery. Thanks to former Governor Zill Miller, Georgia Pre-K is not marginalized by income or location, and because it operates entirely from lottery funds, it’s not subject to taxpayer budget cuts.

If you’re a parent with older kids, you may be relieved to finally get your youngest on the same schedule as their siblings. Georgia preschool runs on the regular school system calendar and is a 6.5 hour instructional day. The Georgia Pre-K program is offered at participating local public schools or through private child care facilities. The best way to find a Georgia Pre-K school in your area is to search the Bright From the Start provider form.

What’s The Curriculum like In Georgia Pre-K?

Because our firstborn’s day care offered both Georgia Pre-K and private Pre-K, I was briefly conflicted. Would he gain more from the private program? If we choose Georgia Pre-K, would my son be challenged enough and recognized as the child genius that we know he is? We got over it and decided on Georgia Pre-K. To my delight, I quickly learned that the Georgia Pre-K curriculum had real “legs,” being challenged by his trained Pre-K instructors at his own level.

Participating schools have to choose an approved curriculum to use along with the Georgia Early Learning and Development Standards (GELDS). All school programs offering Georgia Pre-K must undergo the Georgia curriculum review and approval process so they meet the criteria.

In my opinion Pre-K is the new kindergarten (at least compared to when I was little.) In some cases, it may even be the new first grade. My Georgia preschooler was learning reading, math, art, science, social studies, geography and even yoga and foreign language. His teachers were well trained and the subjects were presented and learned in a creative, playful environment. I was also impressed with how his progress was individually assessed.

Yes, Enrollment In Georgia Pre-K Is Actually A “Lottery”

Before we started looking for participating child care centers for Georgia's Pre-K program, I had heard that you needed to get your child on “the list” early. I thought, “Okay, so I chose my school and we are on the list. All set!” But then I learned that being on a list does not guarantee a spot.  

I knew that free Georgia Pre-K was funded by the lottery, but little did I know that my child’s enrollment is also a lottery — no matter how early you get on a waiting list.

For public schools and private child care facilities, participation in the Georgia Pre-K program is completely voluntary. One private child care center owner in Gwinnett county told me she preferred not not to participate in the program because she didn’t earn as much money as she did with her private Pre-K program (both of which followed a nearly identical curriculum.) For profit and other reasons, not every school wants to participate — creating a shortage of available slots.

Depending on where you live, the demand for state-funded Georgia Pre-K may outweigh the supply of available spaces. The solution for participating schools, we’ve been told, is to literally draw names off the waiting list.

Some private child care facilities who participate in the Georgia Pre-K program may promise your child a spot if you purchase their other services. For example, you may be urged to enroll your child in a school’s day camp for summer with the understanding that you will have priority for their Georgia Pre-K program in the fall. According to DECAL, this proposition is unethical and should be reported. DECAL is committed to making the program available for all qualified preschoolers — regardless if you are a patron of a participating school or not.

For working parents, it’s stressful not knowing whether or not your kid will be accepted into a Georgia Pre-K program in the fall. It can be the difference between as much as $1,600 per month for private school or not.

Enroll Your Child in 4-5 Schools As Early As You Can

It’s a numbers game so don’t feel bad about playing the odds. Enroll your child in at least 3 different schools in addition to your top choice. Every school is different, but enrollment for Georgia Pre-K can start as early as January! Call your schools and find out when you can get on their list.

Some schools have one day (expect a line) when parents can bring in the necessary paperwork and forms. In March, one of the more popular child care centers in my area had a line wrapped around the building 45 minutes before the center opened on their registration day. I was sure they were giving away free iPads or something!

Most schools will let you know by the end of June if your child has been offered a spot in the Georgia Pre-K program for the fall. Don’t wait for them call you. Instead, find out when you can call them and set yourself a reminder. As we approach the end of June, I’m crossing my fingers. Good luck!

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About the Author

April Lentini is the Content Strategist for GeorgiaGov. She empowers content managers for government agencies, helping them understand and improve their website content for optimal usability.

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