Dear Commons Community,
As states and school districts grapple with the issue of providing universal pre-K education, Oklahoma is emerging as a model for the rest of the country. Every 4-year-old in Oklahoma gets free access to a year of high-quality prekindergarten. Even younger children from disadvantaged homes often get access to full-day, year-round nursery school, and some families get home visits to coach parents on reading and talking more to their children.
The research suggests that high-poverty parents, some of them stressed-out kids themselves, don’t always “attach” to their children or read or speak to them frequently. One well-known study found that a child of professionals hears 30 million more words by the age of 4 than a child on welfare.
So the idea is that even the poorest child in Oklahoma should have access to the kind of nurturing that is routine in middle-class homes. That way, impoverished children don’t begin elementary school far behind the starting line — and then give up.
President Obama called in his State of the Union address this year for a nationwide early education program like this, for mountains of research suggests that early childhood initiatives are the best way to chip away at inequality and reduce the toll of crime, drugs and educational failure. Repeated studies suggest that these programs pay for themselves: build preschools now, or prisons later.
Nicholas Kristoph reviewed many of these issues in his New York Times column yesterday and commented on Oklahoma:
“It’s promising that in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?
“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”
Teachers, administrators and outside evaluators agree that students who go through the preschool program end up about half a year ahead of where they would be otherwise.
“We’ve seen a huge change in terms of not only academically the preparation they have walking into kindergarten, but also socially,” said Kirt Hartzler, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. “It’s a huge jump-start for kids.”
Oklahoma began a pilot prekindergarten program in 1980, and, in 1998, it passed a law providing for free access to prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Families don’t have to send their children, but three-quarters of them attend.
…The Oklahoma initiative is partly a reflection of the influence of George B. Kaiser, a Tulsa billionaire who searched for charitable causes with the same rigor as if he were looking at financial investments. He decided on early education as having the highest return, partly because neuroscience shows the impact of early interventions on the developing brain and partly because careful studies have documented enormous gains from early education.
So Kaiser began investing in early interventions in Oklahoma and advocating for them, and, because of his prominence and business credentials, people listened to the evidence he cited. He also argues, as a moral issue, that all children should gain fairer access to the starting line.
“Maybe the reason that rich, smart parents had rich, smart children wasn’t genetics,” Kaiser told me, “but that those rich, smart parents also held their kids, read to them, spent a lot of time with them.”
Congratulations to Oklahoma for its foresight and to the Kaisers of the world who use their wealth for the good of our children.