LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama travels to Atlanta today, where he's announcing the details of a universal preschool plan. Georgia has the oldest universal pre-K program in the country. During his State of the Union address this week, the president outlined his argument for expanding pre-K nationally.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar we invest in high-quality, early childhood education can save more than $7 later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Kathy Lohr reports school and state officials in Georgia are ready to show off their success.
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KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: About 60 percent of Georgia's four-year-olds attend pre-K classes like this one at Educare Atlanta, in the heart of the city. Four children and their teacher sit at a mini-table with a deck of cards made of colored construction paper. The cards display letters of the alphabet, and the kids try to make a match in a game they call "Go Fish."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I have a - an uppercase U. So, I'm going to say: Does anybody have an uppercase U? And if you have it, then you give it to me. And if you don't have it, then what do you say?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Go fish.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Go fish. Very good. OK. So does anybody have an uppercase U?
LOHR: Most of the kids here - 85 percent - come from low-income families. Steve White is the center's director. He says studies show this kind of interaction gives kids the skills to do better in school right away, and as they grow up.
STEVE WHITE: Pre-K gives us those building blocks for children to be able to learn and read when they leave us and go on to kindergarten. And without the pre-kindergarten experience, I don't think our children at all would succeed.
LOHR: Georgia's pre-K is funded entirely by the state lottery. As revenue dropped during the recession, the state made cuts. Now the state is restoring the pre-K budget, but there are still 8,000 children on a waiting list. The University of North Carolina recently conducted a study of Georgia's pre-K program. It found, on average, the children who participated showed significant gains in language, math and behavioral skills. The study also recommended some improvements, including smaller class sizes.
BOBBY CAGLE: It means, long term, that we are producing good results for children.
LOHR: Bobby Cagle heads the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He says he knows there are questions about whether states can duplicate high quality environments, but Cagle says the experience here should provide answers.
CAGLE: What we have been able to determine is that in a state-wide program serving 84,000 students, we're still able to produce good results for the children that are leaving our program, making them ready for school.
LOHR: He says studies are in the works to follow students all the way through high school, to look at the long-term effects. National studies suggest kids who've experienced a high-quality pre-K are less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school. But critics question how anyone can guarantee states will get high-quality teachers and curriculum, and whether the cost is worth it.
At least one study suggests while pre-K does give four-year-olds a leg up, the effects fade-out with time, and students lose their academic edge by third grade. But early education advocates say the problem is not with pre-K. Stephanie Blank is one of the founders of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.
STEPHANIE BLANK: So even kids who experience some fade-out were higher than their peers who didn't have it. But what it shows us is not that pre-K is where we have some of the issues, but what happens when they get into the K through 12 system, as well.
LOHR: Back at Educare Atlanta, three and four-year-olds dance and hop along to music. They're interacting and learning life skills.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) You push and pull to use a rolling pin. We're gonna make cookies with the rolling pin.
LOHR: Today, the president is proposing a cost-sharing partnership with all 50 states to expand public preschool for low and moderate-income four-year-olds. There are questions about how the program will be implemented, and Georgia officials say they can help with that. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.