Pre-K on the Range

Four-year-old John Kaykay is a serious and quiet boy—“my thoughtful one,” his dad calls him. When the official greeters at the front door of the McClure early-childhood center in Tulsa welcome him with their clipboards and electric cheer—“Good morning, John! How are you today?”—he just slowly nods his small chin in their direction. When he gets to Christie Housley’s large, sunny classroom, he focuses intensely on signing in, writing the four letters of his name with a crayon as his dad crouches behind him. When he’s asked the question of the day—“Do you like music?”—he pauses for a minute before putting his magnetic nameplate in the “no” section. 

John’s third day of pre-kindergarten will be filled with more questions. Since yesterday was the 20th and tomorrow is the 22nd, what day is today? Can he pick out the card with the number 21 written on it? If the colors go pink, blue, pink, blue, what comes next in the pattern? How many of his friends are in school today? Can he think of a word that rhymes with dog? 

Historically, Americans have operated on the assumption that kids will just somehow pick up such essentials along the way to “real” school. But, with concerns mounting over rising dropout rates and grim earning prospects for poorly educated Americans, the matter of when and under what circumstances we begin to teach children is of growing importance. Guided by research that shows that most of the wiring for future academic accomplishment happens in the first five years of life, education experts have been exploring how to get our children off to a better, and earlier, start. Many point to France and some of the Scandinavian countries, where almost all three- and four-year-olds participate in good, public preschool. 

But the United States has several stalwarts of early education, too. Even with budgetary challenges, Georgia, Arkansas, and West Virginia have all managed to create high-quality pre-kindergarten programs with strong enrollment over the past few years. But it is John Kaykay’s home state, Oklahoma, that offers the single best example of how preschool can work when it’s done well—of how it can elevate its students’ learning, expand the horizons of the educational system, and enhance the entire community.

Despite growing evidence of the benefits of early education, nationwide only 28 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-K. Among three-year-olds, a paltry 4 percent are enrolled in a public educational program. The numbers could decrease even more as pre-K falls victim to recessionary belt-tightening. States have already cut $90 million from education for three- and four-year-olds over the past two years. Eleven states provide no program at all. 

Oklahoma has bucked the national trend. Seventy-four percent of four-year-olds—more than in any other state—are in high-quality pre-K. Virtually every parent who wants a spot can get one, whether in a public school or in a partner organization, such as Tulsa’s Community Action Project, which runs John Kaykay’s pre-K classroom. The effort has been so thorough and so widely embraced that, in effect, public school in Oklahoma begins at age four. 

Even among the states that do well by their preschoolers, Oklahoma is exceptional. On paper, nine states have universal pre--kindergarten, meaning that all four-year-olds are theoretically eligible. But in most of those states, there isn’t nearly enough funding for everyone to enroll. That’s the case in New York, where fewer than half of four-year-olds participate in the “universal” program. Other states do a superb job with enrollment but a poor job of providing the education. Florida, for instance, has the highest percentage of four-year-olds in pre-K programs—76 percent, slightly more than Oklahoma, according to the most recent “State of Preschool” report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. But because Florida doesn’t require its teachers to have a college degree in early education—and because the state spends so little on each child—just $2,422 per child per year, $5,000 less than in Oklahoma—the quality of the program is low. 

Oklahoma’s pre-K teachers don’t make the piddling wages that prevail in much of the rest of the country. They’re paid the same as elementary and high-school teachers. Christie Housley, along with all other pre-K teachers in Oklahoma, has not only a bachelor’s degree but also certification in early-childhood education—so she knows how young kids typically learn to read, she can recognize the disabilities that tend to emerge at this age, and she understands the best ways to handle behavior problems. State law also mandates that pre-K teachers not have more than 20 students in their classroom and that they have an aide. 

In fact, only six children were present the August morning I was in Housley’s classroom, which allowed her to focus on them individually. John, who was sitting quietly, drew praise for listening carefully to instructions—important feedback for a child who might get no attention at all in a larger class. A little girl who had pigtails and raised her hand at every opportunity was rewarded with a relatively tough question: “What is the opposite of inside?” When one girl strained to remember what day it was, Housley helped by leading the class in a round of their days-of-the-week song.

A boy named Justice demanded a different kind of attention—and Housley was able to give that, too. While his peers were sitting together and learning about the calendar, Justice remained outside the circle playing with blocks and singing loudly. When Housley invited him to join the others, he stayed where he was and increased the volume of his song. Teaching the basic skills of how to participate in a group is one of the biggest tasks of pre-K—and it’s hard to do in big classes. When the rest of the children moved on to washing their hands before snack time, Housley sat next to his block tower and talked with him. “Can you hear what the rest of us are saying when you’re over here by yourself?” she asked gently. The lesson is part of a bigger one that they’ll all learn and relearn this year: how to be a productive, contributing member of a community. Justice, who eventually joined the circle, seemed to be on his way to getting it.

 

While Oklahoma has a model statewide pre-K system, the city of Tulsa illustrates the public-private partnerships that can grow within that model. The state’s second-largest city, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Tulsa has great economic extremes. Some 84 percent of children in Tulsa public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning they live in households that earn no more than $42,643 for a family of four. But there is also great wealth here, much of it from the local energy industry. Because Oklahoma’s law enables private organizations to provide pre-K, a good deal of that wealth has been leveraged to bolster the public system.

Tulsa’s Community Action Project (CAP), which has created and runs McClure as well as 13 other early-education facilities, is a sort of turbo-charged Head Start provider. With an annual budget of more than $52 million, it has married private money—primarily from local oilman and philanthropist George Kaiser—with state and federal funds to serve young children. Because state funding covers the four-year-olds, CAP can devote much of its budget to children three and under. One-third of Tulsa’s qualifying three-year-olds are now in public preschool; the Union School District, which has gone the furthest in enrolling younger students, is on course to serve all three-year-olds within the next year. Plenty of kids in Tulsa may still be behind the curve on their first day of school, but here that first day often comes at age three rather than four or five.

The result is that Tulsa has become a sort of Sweden of the Ozarks—a magnet for the country’s best early-education providers and researchers and a place where preschool is a routine part of growing up. It’s a haven for both children and their parents. CAP works hard to engage adults who may have been alienated by schools in the past. To encourage parents to interact with the schools, the organization consciously decided not to provide busing. The schools’ daily schedules and yearly calendars are synced with nearby public elementary schools, with which some also share land and playgrounds, a setup that allows parents to drop off their preschoolers and scoot next door to drop off older siblings. In the same CAP buildings—which are carefully designed not to feel institutional—they can also take parenting classes, get career training, and receive financial services. 

Though CAP is by mission an anti-poverty organization and serves only students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, its classrooms “don’t look like they’re for poor people,” as one mother remarked upon entering the pine cone–festooned space in which her four-year-old would be learning. Draped with natural-hued fabrics and brightened with “uplighting,” which radiates from standing lamps and is thought to be more calming than old-style fluorescent bulbs overhead, the room looks more like a spread from a Pottery Barn catalog than a traditional classroom. When you look out from its picture windows to the sprawling playground where the students are climbing and digging during outdoor playtime, and then beyond to the garden plots the kids will plant and harvest throughout the year, you can’t help wanting this for all young Americans.

The students who go to pre-K tend to emerge from the year recognizably ahead of their peers. Studies have shown it, and teachers know it. Laura Hamilton, who teaches kindergarten at Northwoods, an elementary school in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, says she easily picked out the 8 kids in her class of 25 this year who hadn’t gone to pre-K. “They’re the ones who don’t know how to line up. They’re not used to sharing, and they’re not used to drawing or writing,” she says, fishing out four of her new kindergarteners’ drawings. Three show recognizable scenes—a family of stick figures, a house with two girls in front, and a house with a sky in the background. The fourth, drawn by a child who didn’t attend pre-K, is of seemingly random scribbles. “It’s usually these kids that have to stay back and repeat kindergarten,” Hamilton says, pointing to the scribbles. 

 

How did Oklahoma—a poor state, and one of the “reddest” in the country—become a preschooling pioneer? It wouldn’t have happened if ardent children’s advocates hadn’t been in the right positions at the right times. 

Ramona Paul, who retired last year as the state’s assistant superintendent of public education, was the first to get pre-K rolling in 1980. “I still remember, it was one o’clock on a Thursday,” says Paul, a commanding, white-haired woman who worked in the state Department of Education for more than two decades. “My boss walked into my office and said, ‘Ramona, what would you like to see for four-year-old children? You just write the model, and I’ll get it funded.’” 

Paul had taken part in a four-year-old program herself as a young child (“It was called nursery school back in those days,” she says), had gone on to teach preschool and college courses in child development, and was present at the Rose Garden Ceremony when President Lyndon Johnson unveiled Head Start. 

The first big government early-education effort, Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. The aim was to address the achievement gap. As with public schooling more broadly, public pre-K was initially seen as an alternative for economically disadvantaged children who couldn’t afford private or church schools. In Oklahoma, which ranks 20th in child poverty, there have always been a lot of those children. 

The model Paul designed reflected both her experience and the state’s demographics. She knew to include high standards for teacher education and pay. She was clear that she wanted the program to be available to all children—not just poor children, who made up the majority of the small number of public preschoolers in the country at the time. “Why would we want to educate just a certain group of children?” she asks. 

Paul’s pilot program was launched that same year. But it was only a half-day, and its small budget limited it to certain parts of the state. It wasn’t until 1998 that a legislator named Joe Eddins quietly pushed through a law that supplied the funding to expand Paul’s vision into a mostly full-day program that would be offered throughout the state. Eddins, too, was well suited to advancing early education. A Democratic legislator who had worked as a rancher and high-school biology teacher, he had spent his first few years in the legislature learning about early education—and becoming convinced that school failure was sending a growing number of Oklahoma’s kids down a life path of poverty and underperformance. 

Eddins’s allies included not just child--development experts and education policymakers but also a handful of business leaders who had come to see early education as the state’s economic salvation. Getting young Oklahomans into school earlier was not only in the kids’ best interest, they argued; it was important for businesses, which were facing a dwindling pool of potential workers and customers. 

Eddins had first waded into the education issue to fix what seemed a discrete problem: Many school districts, especially in rural areas, were enrolling four-year-olds in kindergarten. Because the state’s population was shrinking, these schools were facing declining numbers of students—and thus declining school budgets. Putting four-year-olds in kindergarten sometimes allowed the districts to bring in enough money to keep their schools open because they were receiving funds based on the number of children in school. But the four-year-olds were in classes designed to teach them at a kindergarten level, and they were lost.

Eddins was creative—some say stealthy—in winning support for universal pre-K. He presented the legislation as an amendment to the school law merely designed to fix the four-year-old problem. His bill did do that. But it also created a statewide four-year-old program that surpassed any other in the country. Among the changes it heralded was the ability of school districts to partner with outside entities on pre-K so the programs could be housed in a variety of settings, including tribal programs, churches, and assisted-living facilities. That shift paved the way for a massive partnership between the public schools and Head Start providers, such as CAP, a move that might have raised red flags for some Republicans—had they known about it. 

Eddins was able to gloss over this groundbreaking aspect of his bill in large part because he was trusted and well liked; few of his fellow legislators felt the need to actually read the legislation. Instead, he summarized it. When he did, he chose his words carefully. “I didn’t explain that we’d have this huge collaboration with Head Start,” Eddins says. “I emphasized the part that said you could contract with private providers. Republicans have always loved that.”

Eddins’s bill also dodged several potential problems. It kept pre-K voluntary for parents, thus inoculating it from the criticism of social conservatives who believed that mothers should be home with their kids. By building its cost into the larger public-school funding formula, rather than funding early education separately in the state budget, it also protected pre-K from fiscal conservatives who might object to it as part of a “nanny state.” 

This seemingly small detail may be the key difference separating Oklahoma from other states, such as Arizona and Illinois, where pre-K funding was slashed during the recent recession. Indeed, in Oklahoma, pre-K is essentially just another grade—as unlikely to be singled out as 5th or 11th. “In so many other states, you have huge fights over whether pre-K funding should be cut,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. “It’s forever seen as an extra line at the bottom of the spreadsheet.” 

Although Eddins’s law also made pre-K voluntary, “people started camping out that first night before we started enrolling,” says Cathy Burden, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. That was in 1998, when Union enrolled less than half of its four-year-olds and pre-K was only half-day. Today, about 75 percent of the district’s four-year-olds are enrolled, all are in school for full days, and demand continues to grow. “If anyone tried to get rid of pre-K now,” Burden says, “they’d get run out of town.”

No doubt, part of pre-K’s appeal is that it’s a safe—and free—place for children to be while their parents work. Child care can cost more than $500 per week. But for most parents, the educational value of pre-K is at least as important as the financial benefit. 

“I wanted my son to learn,” explains Maria Mauricio, who lives in the low-income Tulsa neighborhood of Kendall-Whittier. Her four-year-old son, Gabriel, attends pre-K through Educare, another local Head Start provider. A stay-at-home mom of five, Mauricio could have kept Gabriel with her during the day. When she was growing up in Mexico, Mauricio went to school only through seventh grade, stopping so she could help her grandmother support the family by picking peanuts. She wanted more for her son, who, by the age of two, wasn’t speaking either English or Spanish understandably, partly because of hearing problems. Mauricio felt confident that starting school early would give Gabriel the best shot at success. 

There are mountains of data to confirm Mauricio’s hunch. Economically disadvantaged children who take part in a high-quality pre-K program go on to do better academically. They’re less likely to need special education, less likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to graduate from high school. Perhaps more important are the other ways they fare better: Attending pre-K lowers their chances of becoming pregnant as a teen, abusing or neglecting their own children when they become parents, and winding up incarcerated or dependent on public benefits as an adult. 

The most dramatic illustration of these gains comes out of the Perry preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Started in the early 1960s as an effort to improve the academic performance of low-income students, the Perry program enrolled three- and four-year-olds who performed poorly on tests and had low IQ scores. The early results were impressive. Those who went through the half-day Perry program had higher IQs when the program ended at age 5. The longer-term benefits were even more stunning. At age 14, there were moderate to large differences between the test scores of Perry preschool kids and those who didn’t go through the program. At 27, they drank and smoked less. At 40, they were less likely to have been arrested and far outearned their peers. A cost-benefit analysis of Perry provided incontrovertible evidence of the money that could be saved in the long term by working with such young kids. By the time the Perry preschoolers reached age 27, every public dollar spent on their early education yielded a savings of $7.16.

But compelling as the Perry study was, it was based on only 58 preschool students, and all were poor and African American. Another well-studied preschool, the Carolina Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, had similarly impressive results but was also small and exclusively for poor children. As the idea of universal pre-K began to grow around the country, its opponents homed in on the fact that the most clear-cut benefits had been for poor kids. Since there hadn’t been large-scale studies of the long-term benefits of pre-K on middle-class kids, they argued, it wasn’t worth educating all four-year-olds in tight budgetary times. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney used this logic when he vetoed a 2006 bill unanimously approved by the legislature that would have set up a statewide pre-K program. 

In 2002, Bill Gormley, a Georgetown University professor, saw Oklahoma’s program as an opportunity to study the impact of early education on all kids. Because pre-K in Oklahoma cost around $7,500 per child—more than the national average but still far less than the intensive Abecedarian and Perry programs—he could measure the benefits of a four-year-old program with a more acceptable price tag. Because Oklahoma’s pre-K was not just high-quality but also delivered on a massive scale, he could address the question of whether it could do more than level the playing field for poor kids. 

The Tulsa Public School District, the largest in the state, offered an ideal place to get results from the statewide experiment. While there’s plenty of poverty in Tulsa, more than 15 percent of students are middle-class. Unlike most of the kids previously studied, Tulsa’s population is multiracial, with almost equal numbers of white, African American, and Hispanic kids, as well as a slightly smaller group of Native Americans. Oklahoma law also requires that all children be evaluated when they enter kindergarten, so Gormley was able to use those results to compare kids who had attended pre-K with those who hadn’t. 

The gains he found in 2002-2003 were among the biggest ever documented for a universal pre-K program. By the time they started kindergarten, pre-K kids were nine months ahead of their peers with the skills necessary for reading, like recognizing letters and being able to tell stories. They were seven months ahead in pre-writing, including the ability to hold a pencil, and five months ahead in counting and other pre-math skills. The four-year-olds who had been through CAP’s Head Start, as opposed to the regular state pre-K program in Tulsa public schools, were equally ahead in math, though not quite as dramatically ahead when it came to early literacy. (This is likely because Head Start, in addition to its academic goals, has a broader mission, including improving children’s health, establishing their sense of responsibility to society, and increasing their self-worth.) The most impressive part was that the gains were throughout this entire population. Though the poorest kids were helped the most, all of Tulsa’s kids got a boost from pre-K. 

 

The case for universal pre-K ought to be closed. In Oklahoma, it is. Even as enthusiasm for the Tea Party has swept the state, the program has gained in popularity. Oklahomans on both sides of the aisle take pride in being recognized as a national leader in early education. Many rural school administrators regard the program as a lifeline because it helped them keep schools open even as the number of children in their districts diminished. Regardless of their political stripe, most working parents here embrace pre-K as a superior alternative to day care.

Ironically, the rest of the country remains more conflicted about pre-K than rural, conservative Oklahoma. Though President Barack Obama has acknowledged universal pre-K as among the worthiest of public expenditures—he pledged funding for it back in the 2008 campaign and continues to sing its praises—he has done little to expand it in his first four years. This September, his administration established the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes and is contributing $1.4 million of federal funds per year to help it provide states with technical assistance on their pre-K programs. 

The president also used stimulus money to significantly expand Head Start and Early Head Start, the federal programs that serve low-income kids from birth through age four. But these programs are within the Administration for Children and Families, which focuses on social and economic well-being, rather than in the education system. Most pre-K advocates want Obama to fight harder to include early education within the Department of Education and leverage federal funds to encourage more state spending on pre-K programs. It’s not clear, though, that he’d succeed even if he did. Many Republicans oppose such an expansion—and some call for shutting down the Education Department altogether. “They want as little federal involvement in education as possible,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. 

The bigger problem, though, may be convincing lawmakers in both parties to take the long view of pre-K. “People always want me to tell them how quickly it’s going to pay off, because if we’re not going to save enough money in the first five years, then they don’t want to pay for it,” Barnett says. “But the big payoff is when kids are older, when they have a job, are making money, are not in jail.” 

Even Oklahoma’s big, well-studied program hasn’t been around long enough to document the full extent of the bang for the bucks invested. Gormley’s research team at Georgetown recently published a paper using data from Tulsa to estimate that pre-K participation could boost a child’s future annual earnings enormously—by an average of $30,548 for low-income kids and an average of $24,610 for middle-class children.

But that’s just a projection. Oklahoma’s universal pre-K is only in its 15th year. It’ll be two decades or so before John Kaykay and his classmates reach the point where they can be expected to assume financial responsibility and make their mark on the world. If the rest of the country waits that long to learn from Oklahoma’s early-education model, another generation will be lost. 

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