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