Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

I recently shared the fascinating radio story from This American Life about how Oklahoma instituted universal pre-kindergarten in 1998 through what, essentially, was a stealth amendment that added a year to the state’s school funding formula.  Now American Prospect weighs in with an article — Pre-K on the Range – that delves deeper into the Oklahoma story.

“Historically, Americans have operated on the assumption that kids will just somehow pick up such essentials along the way to ‘real’ school,” American Prospect reports. “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 3- and 4-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… 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.”

The Oklahoma law funds pre-kindergarten in school and community-based settings. Teachers have college degrees and are paid public school salaries. Three-quarters of the state’s 4-year-olds attend publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs. “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,” American Prospect reports. “The effort has been so thorough and so widely embraced that, in effect, public school in Oklahoma begins at age 4.”

Oklahoma has also proved a good laboratory for studying the benefits of high-quality pre-kindergarten for a large, mixed-income population of children. Landmark longitudinal studies such as the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina followed relatively small numbers of children from low-income families. In 2002, Bill Gormley of Georgetown University launched a study of children in Tulsa, the state’s largest school district. Oklahoma also has a law requiring assessments of all entering kindergartners, which gave Gormley and his team the means to compare outcomes for children who attended pre-kindergarten with those of children who did not.

“The gains he found in 2002-2003 were among the biggest ever documented for a universal pre-k program,” American Prospect reports. “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.”

Gormley’s research team recently projected the children’s adult earnings and found that children from low-income families who attended pre-kindergarten earned $30,548 more a year than non-participants. Among children from middle class families, the average difference was $24,610.

“The case for universal pre-k ought to be closed,” American Prospect concludes. “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.”