Duncan was in Atlanta to promote President Barack Obama’s proposal to spend $75 billion over 10 years to partner with states on establishing pre-kindergarten and other programs across the country. During a town hall meeting with Duncan, Gov. Nathan Deal said he supported the commitment to early education programs but disagreed with the president’s plan to raise cigarette taxes to pay for it. That prompted Duncan to say the Obama administration is willing to be flexible.
“We’re absolutely committed to exploring every option. To me, the goal is to get this done,” Duncan said after the town hall. “I’m not interested in symbolic victories.”
Duncan said the plan, which would fund public pre-school for 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty rate, is essential for a strong economy and said early childhood learning should not be a political issue.
“Our role in Washington is simply to try and find creative ways to partner with states like Georgia that want to increase access to high-quality early education,” Duncan said. “If we can get this done, I would argue it’s one of the most important gifts we can give the country.”
Georgia has been considered a leader in providing access to pre-kindergarten programs funded with state lottery revenues. Last school year, Georgia’s pre-kindergarten funding reached $300 million, serving almost 83,000 children. That represents almost 58 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds with about 8,000 children on the waiting list.
Deal said the state is committed to expanding the program and suggested allowing states to use Head Start funds or block grants for pre-kindergarten. Obama’s proposal calls for the federal government to fund a majority of the cost during the first few years before shifting that to the states. The plan calls for almost doubling the federal tax on cigarettes to $1.95 per pack.
“I may differ with the secretary with regard on a new funding source because I don’t favor any new taxes,” Deal said. “But I do think we can prioritize, which is what we’ve done at the state level. We can prioritize where we are spending money at the federal level, and I believe we can come up with resources that can put an even greater emphasis on early education.”
Georgia recently restored days to the pre-kindergarten calendar after cutting back due to poor revenue projections. When asked if the state could expand the program without federal assistance, Deal said his office would continue to evaluate the budget.
“Assuming lottery revenues will grow ... then we would continue to use those proceeds wisely and produce the kind of quality results that makes us proud,” Deal said.
Duncan began his visit by reading to a small pre-kindergarten class at William M. Boyd Elementary School, which is part of the Atlanta Public Schools system. The district has been dealing with the fallout of a massive cheating scandal that resulted in criminal charges against the former superintendent and 34 other educators.
“Atlanta has gone through an extraordinarily difficult time,” Duncan said. “What I see is a huge amount of work to restore integrity, to restore trust and build public confidence.”
Duncan also had praise for Gov. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for their commitment to early learning programs.
“This community is blessed to have an extraordinary mayor and governor. Most politicians are used to thinking short-term,” Duncan said. “Early childhood learning is the ultimate long-term investment.”