Paige McKay Kubik lost a third of her staff at preschools and daycares she runs through the Frazer Center in Atlanta after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Months later, she found it nearly impossible to hire new teachers – mostly due to competition from better-paying, less stressful jobs behind a cash register.

“Frankly, you could work for Target or Walmart and clock out when you’re done rather than have the stress of caring for young children,” Kubik told State Affairs. “We were losing people to those opportunities and new people weren’t coming in to fill it.”

Georgia’s preschools have lost hundreds of teachers to better-paying jobs before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many children less prepared to start kindergarten and fewer daycare options for thousands of parents to send their kids while they work.

Across the state, child-care workforce numbers have fallen by 20% over the past few years, largely due to low pay that hasn’t kept pace with other industries’ wage hikes, according to local teachers and advocates. They’re worried about what comes next for Georgia’s preschools and daycares after leaning on federal pandemic relief to prop up classrooms – money that’s set to run out in 2024.

Children learn social skills at the Frazer Center in Atlanta. (Credit: Paige McKay Kubik)


At the same time, Georgia has more than $1 billion in Georgia Lottery money for preschools tucked away in the state treasury as reserves for a rainy day. That dollar trove has swelled year over year amid boom times for lottery ticket sales while child-care workers keep quitting, leaving the state’s roughly 2,500 preschools serving more than 70,000 children in a bind.

Amid a pressing need for more funding, many preschool directors and advocates now hope for a change of heart among state lawmakers in the General Assembly who have historically shown little appetite for tampering with the lottery’s money streams.

“It would clearly be helpful to address the teacher shortages we have,” Joe Perreault, a volunteer with the National Association for Family Child Care who lives in Cherokee County, said about tapping more Lottery dollars. “The difficulty of finding qualified teachers is a very serious problem, and much of it has to do with having higher wages.”

Georgia's child-care workforce dropped by 20% between 2017 and 2020. (Credit: Brittany Phan for State Affairs)


Preschool Teacher Nosedive

Georgia had a shaky track record of hiring and retaining child-care workers before the pandemic forced preschools and daycares to close in March 2020. The state’s preschools for four-year-old children lost around 34% of their workforce between 2017 and 2020, according to state Department of Labor data. Daycare programs serving children from infancy to three-years-old faced an even worse trend, with a 40% drop in staff numbers from 2014 to 2020.

Overall, Georgia lost more than 6,000 preschool and daycare workers from 2017 through 2020 – a 20% decline, state labor data shows. With fewer teachers, local preschools can’t enroll as many four-year-old children as they would like since the state caps classroom sizes at 22 kids. The nonprofit Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Student (GEEARS) estimated child-care enrollment fell 22% between March 2020 and mid-2021. Wait lists have grown for preschools like the Bells Ferry Learning Center that have children ready to enroll but not enough teachers to meet class-size requirements.

“We have space in our building to enroll more children, but we don’t have staff to care for them,” said Sharon Foster, the program’s director who staffs about 35 teachers at two centers in Cherokee and Cobb counties. “There are waiting lists everywhere for child care.”

Child-care teachers and advocates have also noticed children struggling to reach the same reading and emotional-skills level during the pandemic as they did in years past. The gap gives kids less chance to get a leg up as they head to kindergarten – a key role for preschools, said Ronda Hightower, a Laurens County Schools associate superintendent.

“We are seeing a larger number of our kindergarten kids that we are having to go back and teach rituals and routines with social interactions,” said Hightower, who oversees the district’s pre-k program. “Things that they normally learn in pre-k.”

Children play instruments at the Frazer Center in Atlanta. (Credit: Paige McKay Kubik)


Low Wages Hurt Hiring

Many advocates and teachers trace the teacher shortage to low salaries that made jobs at Walmart and Target more enticing during the pandemic. Lead preschool teachers earn less than $35,000 in average salaries this year in Georgia, according to state Department of Early Care and Learning data. Assistant preschool teachers make less than half that amount, while daycare workers this year earn just above $21,000 on average this year.

“[Salaries] are a major challenge right now,” said Pam Tatum, the president and CEO of the Georgia-based advocacy group Quality Care for Children. “[Target and Walmart] are pulling skilled, trained people from the child-care workforce to operate cash registers because the pay is so low in child care.”

A few programs like Atlanta’s Frazer Center have increased their starting wages to $15 an hour in recent months. Kubik, the program’s CEO, said her board found room in their budget for a wage hike to $12 an hour this past July, then another bump to $15 hourly in August. Job candidates turned in more resumes for teacher spots since then, Kubik said.

“We still don’t have enough [teachers], but we’re trying to get there,” Kubik said. “It has made a difference in the number of people who are coming through the door.”

However, Kubik’s program is an outlier. A report released last month from Quality Care for Children found that while boosting child-care wages to $15 an hour would help hire and retain teachers, most Georgia child-care programs couldn’t stomach the increase without needing to raise tuition for families. That’s tough for families already paying an average $500 or more in monthly daycare tuition, according to state data.

“While many programs have been able to survive the last year with [federal relief funds], without that support, the prospect of annual losses in a $15 minimum wage scenario of $43,267 per year is unsustainable,” the report found.

Georgia has more than $1 billion in lottery reserves that could be used to help fund preschool programs teacher salaries. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)


Lottery Reserves Soar

Amid money challenges, many teachers and advocates have eyed the lottery as a potential source to increase wages. A chunk of ticket sales from the lottery funds Georgia’s universal preschool program, totaling $382 million for preschools this year, plus another $937 million to fund the HOPE and Zell Miller college scholarships.

The state also pocketed more than $1.6 billion in lottery reserves last fiscal year, of which around two-thirds sat in an “unrestricted” reserve account that state lawmakers could have spent on preschools, but didn’t. Those usable reserves – roughly $1.05 billion – swelled between 72% and 95% annually over the last decade, starting at about $160 million in 2011, treasury records show.

Preschool advocates point out that drawing down those reserves could pump another $304 million into Georgia preschools – nearly doubling last year’s entire budget. That money could give a shot in the arm to low-paid assistant preschool teachers struggling to make ends meet while the prospect of steady pay at Walmart and Target looms, said GEEARS’s executive director, Mindy Binderman.

“We have an opportunity to address teacher pay,” Binderman said. “We have an opportunity to address program quality and ensure the costs of providing great [preschools] are met.”

To survive the pandemic, Georgia preschools relied on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief to help keep most preschools and daycares from closing, partly through grants to shore up operations and one-time $1,000 bonuses for staff. That federal pot is set to expire in 2024, leaving many preschool directors hesitant to raise teacher wages without longer-term dollars.

“We’ve at least managed to keep our child-care centers open,” Binderman said. “Now, we need to not only stabilize but also ensure we can come out strong on the other end.”

Children learn about plants and insects at the Frazer Center in Atlanta. (Credit: Paige McKay Kubik)


Hesitancy in the Legislature

State budget writers say tapping lottery reserves could put preschools and scholarships at risk if another pandemic-level economic crisis hits Georgia. House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, who heads budget talks in the General Assembly, said lawmakers need to guarantee they can maintain long-term salary increases for preschools before drawing down reserves.

 “If it’s a sustained trend, then we’ll entertain some options,” said England, a Republican representing parts of Gwinnett and Barrow counties. “But if it’s looking like a one-time thing, we’re going to be much more cautious and guarded about those reserves.”

England also said lawmakers need an official green light from Gov. Brian Kemp before they could touch lottery reserves – and that’s a daunting proposition. In the last three decades, the General Assembly’s only major change to lottery-backed programs involved reducing college scholarship award amounts. Instead, England said lawmakers and the governor have started talks about possible across-the-board raises for state employees, which Kemp’s office declined to discuss in detail.

Amid hopes for salary raises, preschool teachers like Heather Melillo stress the importance of early child-care education not only for working parents who need help with their kids during the day, but also for Georgia’s children to have academic success for years to come.

“We are the ones who are going to give them their social and emotional learning,” said Melillo, a former “Georgia Pre-K Teacher of the Year” who teaches at West End Elementary School in Floyd County. “We teach them skills that they’re going to need for their entire lives.”


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