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Ga. not a winner in education grant competition

ATLANTA -- Georgia is not among the winners of the U.S. Department of Education's grant competition for early learning programs, federal officials announced Friday.

The state, long considered a national leader in prekindergarten, did not make the list of nine recipients of $500 million in "Race to the Top" money.

Georgia was the first state to offer free pre-k to any 4-year-old who wanted to enroll, a program that is nearly two decades old. It is also one of just a handful of states with a separate state department for early learning.

But in the last few years, the state has made cuts to the prekindergarten program and is far behind many states on creating a statewide system to rate the quality of preschools and daycares.

"The cuts have set Georgia back," said Steve Barnett, a researcher with the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "I don't think it's viewed as a national model in the same way any longer."

The state could have won up to $70 million to move forward on 11 initiatives, but without the money, the state will have to focus on just six of those programs, said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning.

The department was hoping to speed up the development of its rating system with scores for 2,100 daycare centers and preschools by the end of next year, but now the system will reach just 700 facilities in that time, he said.

The state will have to raise about $10 million privately to pay for the teacher bonuses included in the rating system, he said.

Georgia also will have to put on hold the development of a skills test for children going into kindergarten, Cagle said.

"We are disappointed but undeterred," said Cagle. "I think it's very fair to say that Georgia is a leader and will remain a leader in early childhood education."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the governor "takes pride" in the process the state used to develop its application, even if Georgia was not named a winner.

"Early learning and early literacy are a top priority for Gov. Deal and he's disappointed Georgia did not receive the funds this go-round," spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said. "The process was a positive step toward helping Georgia to improve the quality of early learning opportunities -- a step the governor will continue to push heavily."

Georgia won $400 million last year from a similar U.S. Education Department grant competition for K-12 education.

While the state slashed 20 days from the prekindergarten school year starting this fall because of lagging lottery revenue, Cagle said he believes the Georgia's lack of a fully developed rating system hurt its chances of winning the federal competition the most.

But the state has been slipping behind other states in the last few years. In a study released by Barnett's institute in the spring, Georgia ranked 20th place in state money spent per child on early education. That's compared to ninth place in 2003, a number determined when per-student funding is adjusted for inflation.

The state also has fallen to fourth in the percentage of 4-year-olds in its lottery-funded pre-k program after hovering among the top three states since the annual study started coming out in 2003.

The winning states in the grant competition were: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.