Georgia’s Free, Albeit Non-Existent, Preschools

Kakhi Chanukvadze, right, and a classmate choose animals to paint at their Tbilisi preschool. Photo by Tamar Kikacheishvili.

Kakhi Chanukvadze, right, and a classmate choose animals to paint at their Tbilisi preschool. Photo by Tamar Kikacheishvili.

TBILISI | Every day Natia Chanukvadze walks her son, 4-year-old Kakhi, the 15 minutes from their Tbilisi apartment to his public preschool. To hear Chanukvadze talk, Kakhi’s experience is a testament to Georgia’s policy of providing free preschool to children whose families qualify for welfare, as the Chanukvadzes do.

With obvious pride, Chanukvadze said Kakhi can add and subtract up to 20. Kakhi can also count to 100. “I had no idea that he knew some arithmetic, and I was surprised when I discovered that one day,” Chanukvadze said.

In addition, she said, her son has picked up verbal skills: “He sings very well, and he knows lots of poems. Everything depends on the teacher; his teacher is very motivated.”

But Kakhi’s experience is rare. Though preschool education is free or subsidized for needy families, only about 30 percent of Georgia’s poor children have access, according to a November report from UNICEF.

Georgia’s rural areas are particularly lacking. UNICEF and Civitas, a civil society group, have opened 120 preschools in the countryside but gaps remain.

UNICEF has directly linked the dearth of preschool education to Georgia’s poor performance in international tests of students’ skills later on. Of 48 countries whose students participated in two standardized tests in 2009 and 2011, Georgia ranked 33rd in math and 37th in science, the agency noted.

Tinatin Khidasheli, a Georgian lawmaker, recently spoke in parliament about the importance of preschool education. But instead of expanding the coverage of preschool, she wants to make it free to all children, regardless of income.

In an interview, Khidasheli said offering free or subsidized public preschool only to needy families perpetuates social divisions.

“Socially protected and unprotected shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to children,” she said, referring to the terms used in Georgia to denote who gets state aid and who does not. “The country should take that minimal responsibility to all children, and they shouldn’t have been divided into rich and poor.

She acknowledged that many areas don’t even have preschools but said that should not preclude the government from offering free preschool where it does exist.

“Having free preschool doesn’t rule out having preschools in every village,” she said.

But it might, according to Paata Batatashvili, who oversees preschools in a district of the eastern Kakheti region. That’s because local governments will have to foot the higher tuition bill, possibly cutting into their budgets for school maintenance and construction.

Batatashvili said all of the Kvareli district’s roughly 1,000 public preschoolers get free or heavily subsidized tuition. Still, the local government manages to set aside money to refurbish one or two of the community’s dilapidated, Soviet-era preschools per year.

“Now we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the future. It’s obvious that if the preschools are free, more parents will want to put their kids in earlier and it will increase the number of children in preschool,” Batatashvili said.

He said one the district’s villages in particular could suffer. Tivi is home to a community of Avars, a minority found in parts of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan, Russian. The village has no preschool and the children there who cannot travel to a nearby village get no early education. Right now, officials plan to open a preschool there with the help of aid organizations.

Debate on the free-preschool bill has broken down along party lines. Alexandre Kantaria, who, like the bill’s sponsor, is a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, said funding was the key to broadening preschool access.

Kantaria, who sits on the legislature’s education, science, and culture committee, told parliament he gets frequent appeals from constituents who cannot pay their children’s preschool tuition or from those who barely miss qualifying for state support.

But Sergo Ratiani, of the opposition United National Movement, said those who need help paying for preschool already get it, and the real issue is developing more preschools.

Ratiani said any proposal to abolish fees should be limited to 5-year-olds, for whom preschool is mandatory, and should be paid for by the Education Ministry instead of local governments.

Khidasheli’s bill passed on first reading on 7 March and looks set to make it through the legislature, although it’s not known if President Mikheil Saakashvili will sign it into law. If he did, it would go into effect in the coming school year.

Maya Kuparadze, an education officer for UNICEF, said abolishing the fee would make preschool accessible to more families, although she said Georgia also needs to work on making it easier for disabled children to attend.

But given budget realities, developing more preschools should take priority over making it free, according to Nino Tsintsadze, an official with the Georgian Portage Association, which provides home-schooling visits to preschool-age children with special needs.

Tsintsadze said that while parents would obviously welcome the move to make preschool free, there was no groundswell for such a bill.

“The development of preschools, development of infrastructure, implementation of teaching programs, and building new preschools has to be the priority,” Tsintsadze said. “I think it was worth thinking about these issues before presenting this proposal.”

It is difficult to know how many children are not attending public preschools – and therefore how much more this proposal might cost the public purse. Georgia’s census counts the number of children from infant to 4 years old in one category, and puts 5-year-olds in a different age group. But it is children ages 2 to 5 who attend preschool.

Further, the National Statistics Office counts only children in public preschool, although many in private schools would presumably shift to public schools if public tuition were abolished. Georgia has more than 58,000 children ages 2 to 5 in public preschools.

But the proposal would almost certainly heap more obligations on local governments, who already pick up the tab for preschool education for disabled children, those who lost a parent in the 2008 Georgia-Russian conflict, orphans, or the third and subsequent children of any family.

According to Tbilisi City Hall, of the 41,994 children enrolled in public preschools there, 13,726 – about one-third – do not pay tuition and many more receive subsidies. The city’s annual tab for preschools is 37 million lari ($22.4 million).

To concerns of cost, Khidasheli said local governments should first do the calculations and request more money from parliament, if necessary.

Nino Katsitadze, manager of a public preschool in Tbilisi that has 180 students, welcomes the proposal. She said many of her parents complain they can’t afford the tuition even though most get full or partial subsidies. The full tuition costs 80 lari, which is paid only by the handful of non-Georgian residents whose children attend her school.

According to the National Statistics Office, the average monthly wage in Georgia is 813 lari.

Kuparadze, of UNICEF, said if Georgia truly wants to make preschool universal, the country must do two things: persuade some reluctant parents, mostly in urban areas, of the benefits of preschool, and put more school houses and skilled teachers in rural areas.

“The main priority for Georgia should be to gradually expand early-learning coverage with a special emphasis on the weaker links: socially vulnerable children, ethnic minorities, and rural regions,” Kuparadze said.

Tamar Kikacheishvili is a journalist in Tbilisi.




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