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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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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.