Georgia's lottery-funded preschool started as a pilot program in 1992, targeted to low-income kids. The HOPE Scholarship, available to any Georgia high-school graduate with a 3.0 grade point average or better who attends a state college, was established in 1993.
By 1994, the prekindergarten program was serving about 15,000 children. The Georgia Lottery also was turning out to be far more successful than anyone could have imagined. In 1994, a narrowly reelected Miller was in the happy position of deciding what to do with a funding surplus. He decided on universal access to Georgia Pre-K. A top aide for Miller, Mike Vollmer, explained the reasoning in Elizabeth Rose's 2010 book The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten, telling Rose: "With the political conservative environment that we are living in, if we come out and try to push a program for poor kids, we're not going to get a whole lot of support."
Thus, by catering to a conservative dislike for welfare-type programs, Georgia became the first state to establish universal prekindergarten. A generation of Georgia's children has now grown up with the program. A steady funding stream ensures that there is a robust supply of prekindergarten providers. The K-12 school systems are fully invested in prekindergarten because they don't have to worry about competing for scarce resources. Families have sent their small kids to Georgia Pre-K schools and then used the same revenue stream for their college-bound students. They don't question its existence.
These residents probably don't realize that Georgia's preschool program is unusual. Only 11 other states place no income limitations in their prekindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. It's worth noting that about half are red or semi-red states — Alabama, Florida, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
In many of these states, however, enrollment is low because funding is low. In Alabama, for example, only 6 percent of the state's 4-year-olds were enrolled in 2012 due to funding constraints. Missouri, like Georgia, uses a state gaming program to fund its prekindergarten program, but there is so little money available that only 4 percent of the state's 4-year-olds were enrolled in 2012.
Georgia, by contrast, is at 58 percent enrollment in Georgia Pre-K, with another 7 percent of the state's 4-year-olds enrolled in the federally funded Head Start. (Many of the Head Start kids are in the same classrooms with Georgia Pre-K students.)
Of the states that don't target prekindergarten to needy families, only Florida and Oklahoma beat out Georgia in enrollment, covering 79 percent and 74 percent of 4-year-olds, respectively. But there is a difference: Florida and Oklahoma rely on general coffers to fund pre-K. In Georgia, it's all about the lottery.