Legislation could offer solution for unused Pre-K spots in Georgia

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Thousands of Georgia's coveted pre-kindergarten spots go unused each year, despite the fact that the state has thousands of children on a waiting list for the program.

According to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), the state has 84,000 slots funded by the Georgia Lottery. Of those, only 80,620 were filled this school year and 5,000 children were wait listed.

WATCH: Hear how state officials want to fill more Pre-K spots

"Part of the problem is that there aren't the available classrooms to house the program," said State Senator Elena Parent, D-Decatur.

Under current state law, school systems can only use capitol funds for kindergarten through 12 grade expenditures.  That means, unless they already have a pre-kindergarten classroom, they cannot spend money to build or retrofit one for students.

Sen. Parent filed Senate Bill 98, which would allow school systems to voluntarily use capitol money for pre-kindergarten space if they desire.

"There is a critical need for additional pre-k seats in our county," Marshall Orson, a member of the DeKalb County Board of Education told a Senate committee reviewing the bill Wednesday.

State numbers show that DeKalb County has one of the largest wait lists in the state with 573 children. That number, however, could be much higher.

"We have waiting lists that can number in the hundreds," said Decatur City Schools Superintendent David Dude.  "What we have also found most recently is many families give up putting their names on waiting lists because they don't want to go through the strife of being on a waiting list long term and never getting a response and not knowing where their child is going to go. So, our research suggests that the waiting lists significantly under count the actual demand within our city."

Both Dude and Orson support SB 98.

A representative from the private daycare industry, however, opposes the measure.

"We're just asking you to really think before we start adding more classrooms to public schools about the impact that this will have to private providers who are out there trying to provide childcare services," said Ellen Reynolds with the Georgia Child Care Association.

Parent and others argue that the private market has not kept up with the demand.  Fulton, Clayton and Gwinnett counties also have waiting lists of hundreds of children, according to numbers provided by DECAL.

"It means that the full promise of the program and the promise of the lottery to the citizens of Georgia is not being met in the way it should be," Sen. Parent said.

The Senate Education and Youth committee must vote to approve the bill before it can move to the full Senate for a vote.

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