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Burns: Gov. Deal carefully weighing pre-k policy decisions

In the column this week, I want to bring you up to date on the recent recommendations for the Georgia Department of Early Care And Learning” (DECAL) and their program “Bright From the Start,” more commonly referred to as pre-k. There has been a great deal of talk about this proposal, and I wanted to let you know what information we have received since last week, and also, how carefully Governor Deal is weighing these policy decisions.
At his press conference this week, the Governor expressed that “It is so important that we keep Georgia pre-k a priority in order to ensure that students are school ready and on pace to read on grade level by third grade. I appreciate the cooperative, can-do spirit of the Georgia pre-k community. They have provided invaluable feedback over the last few weeks to help us improve our original proposal. Most important, this plan will serve our 4-year-olds well.”
The original proposal would have shortened pre-k days to four hours per day, creating transportation problems for school systems. Also, that scheduling would have made it difficult for working parents.
Fortunately, Governor Deal heard concerns about the old proposal: “Teachers, providers and parents understand the importance of reforms to maintain our excellent prekindergarten program for the next generation, but they emphasized a desire to keep the program full day. These discussions have yielded an improved product.”
Under the new proposal, pre-k programs will remain full day, or 6 ½ hours. Although the school year will be shortened from 180 days to 160 days, this proposal is much more palatable for working parents.
In addition, two more children will be added per class, bringing the number of children per class from 20 to 22. Keeping the teacher/paraprofessional format, the teacher-student ratio would be 11:1. This change alone will save the program $22 million, and will allow for 2,000 more children to participate in pre-k programs than is currently allowed. With about 10,000 children waiting to be enrolled in programs, this will shorten waiting lists in key areas. This increase allows pre-k student enrollment to reach up to 86,000 students, more than any other state.
Despite these cuts, operational costs also needed to be reduced. Originally, a 30 percent reduction in teacher salaries was proposed. The new proposal would reduce teacher salaries by 10 percent, allowing the state to provide pre-k teachers with 90 percent of their current salaries.
Operational costs for pre-k program providers are being cut by 6.8 percent, but there will still be funding to help program centers operate. This includes money for extra supplies and materials needed for the two extra children being added to many classrooms.
These are difficult decisions that we as legislators are forced to make for the future of great programs like pre-k and HOPE. Even with these cuts, Georgia will still lead the nation in early education, and we continue to work to keep improving our programs for Georgia’s children.
Please know that I am still concerned about the proposed cuts to the pre-k program and teachers’ salaries. 
We passed two other House Bills this week; both address a health related issue.
The increasing cost of healthcare and health insurance has received much attention since President Obama signed the “Affordable Care Act” into law on March 23, 2010. Whether you like or dislike this federal health insurance law, it is clear that American families are already seeing the costs of the law’s new mandates. Health insurance premiums are increasing dramatically, making health insurance unaffordable for many Georgians. With that in mind, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 47. This legislation gives Georgians the option to purchase less expensive health insurance plans by allowing insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell accident and health insurance policies that are approved for sale in other states. This simple change would create a more open insurance market with greater competition, ultimately resulting in less expensive health insurance options for Georgians.
House Bill 199 addressed another health related issue. This legislation bans the sale and possession of five chemical compounds used exclusively to create a dangerous immerging designer drug that is commonly marketed as “bath salts.” Though the name may sound harmless, these narcotic bath salts are actually designed to mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamines.  Users of the substances snort, smoke, or inject the compounds to get a speed-like high, but often experience extreme paranoia, suicidal tendencies, hallucinations, or in some cases, even death. By adding the chemicals that give these substances their narcotic effects to the state list of Schedule I narcotics, we can remove dangerous drugs from the shelves of our local shops and hopefully prevent young people from using the deadly “bath salt.”
House Bill 78, the Fiscal Year 2012 state budget passed the Georgia House this past Friday. Among other budgetary items, it will provide funding to implement Governor Deal’s pre-k program described above. I will outline the specifics of HB 78 in next week’s article.
I welcome your comments, concerns and suggestions about pre-k and other issues of importance to you. You may reach me at (404) 656-5099 or e-mail me at jon.burns@house.ga.gov.

Jon Burns represents Screven County as part of his District 157 of the Georgia State House of Representatives.