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Pre-K on the Range, part 3: The policy (and politics) behind Oklahoma’s pioneering preschools

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This article, by Sharon Lerner, originally appeared in The American Prospect

How did Oklahoma—a poor state, and one of the “reddest” in the country—become a preschooling pioneer? It wouldn’t have happened if ardent children’s advocates hadn’t been in the right positions at the right times.

Ramona Paul, who retired last year as the state’s assistant superintendent of public education, was the first to get pre-K rolling in 1980. “I still remember, it was one o’clock on a Thursday,” says Paul, a commanding, white-haired woman who worked in the state Department of Education for more than two decades. “My boss walked into my office and said, ‘Ramona, what would you like to see for four-year-old children? You just write the model, and I’ll get it funded.’”

Inside and outside

A trusted legislator, child-development experts, education policymakers, and a handful of business leaders came to see early education as key to Oklahoma’s economic salvation.

Paul had taken part in a four-year-old program herself as a young child (“It was called nursery school back in those days,” she says), had gone on to teach preschool and college courses in child development, and was present at the Rose Garden Ceremony when President Lyndon Johnson unveiled Head Start.

The first big government early-education effort, Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. The aim was to address the achievement gap. As with public schooling more broadly, public pre-K was initially seen as an alternative for economically disadvantaged children who couldn’t afford private or church schools. In Oklahoma, which ranks 20th in child poverty, there have always been a lot of those children.

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.”

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.

More Pre-K on the Range

Part 1: An inside look at Oklahoma’s amazing pre-k classrooms

Part 2: How public-private partnerships made Tulsa a ‘Sweden of the Ozarks’ in early learning

Part 3: The policy (and politics) behind Oklahoma’s pioneering preschools

Part 4: Proof, meet pudding: Oklahoma’s pre-K kids start nine months ahead of their peers

Part 5: Why can’t the rest of the country catch up to Oklahoma in early learning?

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