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.
The president also used stimulus money to significantly expand Head Start and Early Head Start, the federal programs that serve low-income kids from birth through age four. But these programs are within the Administration for Children and Families, which focuses on social and economic well-being, rather than in the education system. Most pre-K advocates want Obama to fight harder to include early education within the Department of Education and leverage federal funds to encourage more state spending on pre-K programs. It’s not clear, though, that he’d succeed even if he did. Many Republicans oppose such an expansion—and some call for shutting down the Education Department altogether. “They want as little federal involvement in education as possible,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
The bigger problem, though, may be convincing lawmakers in both parties to take the long view of pre-K. “People always want me to tell them how quickly it’s going to pay off, because if we’re not going to save enough money in the first five years, then they don’t want to pay for it,” Barnett says. “But the big payoff is when kids are older, when they have a job, are making money, are not in jail.”
Even Oklahoma’s big, well-studied program hasn’t been around long enough to document the full extent of the bang for the bucks invested. Gormley’s research team at Georgetown recently published a paper using data from Tulsa to estimate that pre-K participation could boost a child’s future annual earnings enormously—by an average of $30,548 for low-income kids and an average of $24,610 for middle-class children.
But that’s just a projection. Oklahoma’s universal pre-K is only in its 15th year. It’ll be two decades or so before John Kaykay and his classmates reach the point where they can be expected to assume financial responsibility and make their mark on the world. If the rest of the country waits that long to learn from Oklahoma’s early-education model, another generation will be lost.
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