By Jessica Woltjen
The committee rooms at the Georgia Capitol can be imposing. There’s a lot of wood paneling, a row of not-so-comfortable pews for spectators, and legislators framed by forest green walls as they regard speakers far across the room. While I’m now a seasoned advocate, I definitely remember being a bit intimidated the first time I sat down at the table to testify on the importance of early childhood education in 2019.
But a couple weeks ago, I returned to one of the committee rooms to testify before the House Working Group on Early Childhood Education—presenting on everything from brain development in babies and toddlers to teacher pay to Pre-K class sizes. This time, the people gathered felt more like a group of friends. In fact, they were! Every one of the nine early childhood experts who spoke to the committee was affiliated with the Georgia Infant-Toddler Coalition, an advocacy group convened by GEEARS. And we at GEEARS have met with almost all of the Working Group’s five members over the last year.
Even the existence of this Working Group is a sign of great progress. It shows that GEEARS’ work cultivating relationships with established legislators and educating new ones about issues important to Georgia’s families and Georgia’s youngest children, including Georgia’s universal, lottery-funded Pre-K, has paid off.
On the day I spoke at the group’s public session, the members’ questions were well-informed by both facts and passion. I give some credit for this to our GEEARS advocacy team and our Coalition partners for so avidly and persistently talking to policymakers about things like the critical brain growth window that occurs between the ages of zero and five, the industry-destabilizing impact of low teacher wages, and the connection between a well-stocked classroom and optimal learning. Another influence on the Working Group is evidence of the success of Georgia’s Pre-K. More than two million students have attended Georgia’s Pre-K since it began and research suggests Pre-K leaves kids better-prepared for K-12 learning than children who don’t attend.
It only makes sense for our state to now advance to more comprehensive and nuanced policies that can improve the lives of young Georgians and their families in the way that Pre-K has. That’s what this Working Group is all about. It was created at the culmination of the last legislative session by House Speaker, Jon Burns, and it’s chaired by Speaker Pro Tem, Jan Jones, both Republicans. All in the group, both Republicans and Democrats, clearly feel the urgency created by last month’s “child care cliff,” as well as the compromises applied to Georgia’s Pre-K during the 2011 economic downturn.
I’m extremely hopeful about the recommendations the Working Group will issue before the start of the 2024 legislative session. Whatever they propose, GEEARS will be ready to work with legislators to get policy passed that will create sustained, meaningful change for Georgia’s youngest children. And if that means more testimony from me and my colleagues on the Infant-Toddler Coalition, count us— amicably—in.
Jessica Woltjen is GEEARS’ Senior Policy Manager for Early Childhood Education.