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How Rural, Conservative Oklahoma Built the Nation's Best Model for Early Education

In a national pre-K landscape that is bleak at best, impoverished Oklahoma is making great strides in educating its youngest learners.
 
 
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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.