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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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But compelling as the Perry study was, it was based on only 58 preschool students, and all were poor and African American. Another well-studied preschool, the Carolina Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, had similarly impressive results but was also small and exclusively for poor children. As the idea of universal pre-K began to grow around the country, its opponents homed in on the fact that the most clear-cut benefits had been for poor kids. Since there hadn’t been large-scale studies of the long-term benefits of pre-K on middle-class kids, they argued, it wasn’t worth educating all four-year-olds in tight budgetary times. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney used this logic when he vetoed a 2006 bill unanimously approved by the legislature that would have set up a statewide pre-K program. 

In 2002, Bill Gormley, a Georgetown University professor, saw Oklahoma’s program as an opportunity to study the impact of early education on all kids. Because pre-K in Oklahoma cost around $7,500 per child—more than the national average but still far less than the intensive Abecedarian and Perry programs—he could measure the benefits of a four-year-old program with a more acceptable price tag. Because Oklahoma’s pre-K was not just high-quality but also delivered on a massive scale, he could address the question of whether it could do more than level the playing field for poor kids. 

The Tulsa Public School District, the largest in the state, offered an ideal place to get results from the statewide experiment. While there’s plenty of poverty in Tulsa, more than 15 percent of students are middle-class. Unlike most of the kids previously studied, Tulsa’s population is multiracial, with almost equal numbers of white, African American, and Hispanic kids, as well as a slightly smaller group of Native Americans. Oklahoma law also requires that all children be evaluated when they enter kindergarten, so Gormley was able to use those results to compare kids who had attended pre-K with those who hadn’t. 

The gains he found in 2002-2003 were among the biggest ever documented for a universal pre-K program. 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. The four-year-olds who had been through CAP’s Head Start, as opposed to the regular state pre-K program in Tulsa public schools, were equally ahead in math, though not quite as dramatically ahead when it came to early literacy. (This is likely because Head Start, in addition to its academic goals, has a broader mission, including improving children’s health, establishing their sense of responsibility to society, and increasing their self-worth.) The most impressive part was that the gains were throughout this entire population. Though the poorest kids were helped the most, all of Tulsa’s kids got a boost from pre-K. 

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The case for universal pre-K ought to be closed. 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. Though President Barack Obama has acknowledged universal pre-K as among the worthiest of public expenditures—he pledged funding for it back in the 2008 campaign and continues to sing its praises—he has done little to expand it in his first four years. This September, his administration established the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes and is contributing $1.4 million of federal funds per year to help it provide states with technical assistance on their pre-K programs.