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Oklahoma Leading the Nation in Preschool Education

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Posted 10.22.12

Oklahoma, despite ranking low in education funding and high in dropout rates, is one of the nation’s leaders in early childhood education—a fact highlighted by two public radio programs this weekend.

Alex Blumberg, a producer at Planet Money, visited Tulsa to get a better understanding of the state’s Educare program. Funded in large part by billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser, it’s become the model for the rest of the country looking to educate the 4-and-under population.

Describing the finger painting, block building, and baby rocking he observed at one of the program’s two (the third one opens this week) Educare sites, Blumberg mused, “What’s happening here isn’t just cute; it’s important—hugely important. It may be the solution—and I’m only half-joking here—to everything wrong in the world. Poverty, crime, the economy, deficit, the solution to all of society’s problems: pre-school.”

Blumberg explained that Kaiser came to fund early childhood education after reading The Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study conducted by the University of North Carolina in the 1970s that periodically surveyed and tested two groups of students—one that attended preschool and one that did not—through high school and into young adulthood. Researchers learned the students who had attended preschool had lower rates of teenage pregnancy, were less likely to end up on public assistance, were less likely to be incarcerated, were more likely to graduate college, and earned, on average, 50 percent more than those who didn’t attend preschool.

Kaiser wanted to fund an endeavor with the same “cost-benefit” approach that had served him so well in business.

“I think the first place people normally address is what I would call the symptoms of disadvantage: health care, housing, nutrition, and so forth,” he told Blumberg. “The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that though those things are necessary, they deal with the symptoms of the problem and they don’t much undo the sources of the problem. So I tried to drill back earlier to see what we could do so those people did not have the need for housing, nutrition and health care supplied by charitable sources.”

In a separate report, one aired by This American Life (beginning at 35:05), Blumberg divulged the sneaky way in which Oklahoma became the nation’s leader in early childhood education—a feat seemingly unheard of in a state vehemently opposed to government interference and what legislators like to call “nanny” laws. But, in the late 1990s, Joe Eddins, a Democrat from Vinita, discovered schools were using a loophole in the state’s education funding policies to collect additional money by doubling up on half-day kindergarten classes and padding those classes with 4-year-olds. They’d then divert the extra monies they received to other areas of need within the school districts. Eddins set out to close that loophole when he was approached by a Tulsa businessman, Bob Harbison, who educated him on the importance of preschool.

So Eddins filed his planned amendment but added wording that would require the state to separately fund preschool education for 4-year-olds in school districts that wanted to offer it. “It was a massive overhaul of public education funding,” Blumberg reported, but it was buried in a bill that most legislators wouldn’t read—and that Eddins, when explaining it, would omit, highlighting instead the parts he knew would be attractive.

“It was a huge and costly expansion of government’s role in education in the state most opposed to costly expansions of government,” Blumberg said. And Eddins doesn’t think it has half a chance of passing in other states—in fact, it wouldn’t have passed in Oklahoma if it hadn’t been snuck through.

“(Other states) don’t have a prayer,” Eddins told Blumberg. “It’s expensive, and state legislatures are run by people who want to cut programs, not add programs.”

Holly Wall, News Editor