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