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Seeing success, conservative Oklahoma banks on universal preschool

February 2, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Children in Oklahoma don't wait for kindergarten to begin public education; there's preschool for anyone who wants it. While costly, the government program has been hailed for the long-term benefits and has become a national model. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from Tulsa.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  There’s growing interest in a number of cities and states to try funding universal pre-kindergarten programs.

Philadelphia is the latest city that wants to create one.  Oklahoma has long been home to early childhood education that’s widely cited as a model.

Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on how a liberal political priority became popular in a conservative state.

It’s part of our education series on Tuesdays, Making the Grade.

STUDENTS:  A is for apple, apple.

CAT WISE:  In Oklahoma, the ABCs start before kindergarten.

STUDENTS:  D is for dog.

CAT WISE:  Children here begin public education at just 4 years of age, some as young as 3.  It’s preschool for anyone who wants it, and it costs the state about $7,500 per child per year.

WOMAN:  I like all those colors you’re using.

CAT WISE:  The program is hailed as a national model by the Obama administration and advocates who believe early education creates long-term benefits.

WOMAN:  What color is that one?  Very good.

CAT WISE:  It’s a costly government program in one of the reddest of red states, but it appears both Democrats and Republicans believe it’s working.

WILLIAM GORMLEY, Georgetown University:  It’s not every day that a very conservative state, like Oklahoma, establishes a new social program.  It’s not every day that a very poor state like Oklahoma establishes a new social program.

CAT WISE:  William Gormley is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.  He has studied Oklahoma’s pre-kindergarten program in Tulsa for 15 years.

WILLIAM GORMLEY:  Students are nine months ahead of their peers in their pre-reading skills, seven months ahead of their peers in their pre-writing skills, and five months ahead of their peers in their pre-math skills.

CAT WISE:  Those differences were obvious to Lee Elementary School teacher Patty Eaton from the start.

PATTY EATON, Lee Elementary School:  Their skill level was quite a bit above the other children that were coming in without the pre-K program.  It was pretty incredible to see the difference between the two.

Tulsa resident Coral Renteria says her 4-year-old daughter, Lindsey, is thriving.

WOMAN:  She’s only been in pre-K for about two months, and she’s singing everything, like her ABCs.

CAT WISE:  And what are the songs you sing?

CHILD (singing):  A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

WILLIAM GORMLEY:  At kindergarten entry in Tulsa, the single best predictor of a child’s verbal test skills is not race, or income, but whether that child was in pre-K the previous year.

CAT WISE:  While the research shows early gains for children here in Oklahoma, the big question is, will those gains persist in later years?  Critics of Oklahoma’s program say the costs of pre-kindergarten outstrip long-term benefits, which remain unclear.

LISA SNELL, Reason Foundation:  There’s some positive outcomes for the kids, but then, by second grade, third grade, those fade out.

CAT WISE:  Lisa Snell is an education analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

LISA SNELL:  If you’re talking about things like graduation rates, test scores, college graduation, the economic future of these kids, I think we have a more difficult time linking the investment in early education to long-term outcomes.

CAT WISE:  Snell points to Oklahoma’s fourth grade reading scores, which have remained stagnant since universal pre-K was introduced.

LISA SNELL:  So far, they have had a pretty mediocre response at best in terms of the progress that their kids are making later in school.

CAT WISE:  But advocates for Oklahoma’s pre-K program say looking at test score trends can be misleading, since Oklahoma has seen a recent influx of children who speak English as a second language.

Principal Raye Nero of Tulsa’s Sequoyah Elementary School says more students are showing up at school less prepared.

RAYE NERO, Principal, Sequoyah Elementary:  My demographics are very challenging.  I have parents who have an elementary education raising their kids.  So, our kids are not learning at home like they should.

So, not only are we teachers.  We’re parents.  We’re teaching social skills.  We’re teaching emotional skills.  We’re teaching academic skills.  So it’s difficult.

CAT WISE:  And those students who are in pre-K, they’re seeing gains, but there’s a lot to make up for, I guess.

RAYE NERO:  A lot, but I still believe, the earlier we get those kids, and can put them in this kind of structure, will help them in the long run.

CAT WISE:  It falls on pre-K teachers like Kegan Waters to bridge that learning gap.

WOMAN:  Four kids in my class out of 20 are speaking only Spanish when they walk in the door.

CAT WISE:  Lindsey, Coral Renteria’s daughter, was one of them.

WOMAN:  Her first language is Spanish.  In two months, she’s caught up on her English like I couldn’t imagine.

CAT WISE:  In just two months?

WOMAN:  In just two months.  I’m very, very happy.

CAT WISE:  Across the country, 44 states pay for some version of pre-K classes, but only four states and the district of Columbia offer universal preschool.  The fact that all residents, not just families with low income, can enroll here could be why the program receives wide political support in a conservative state like Oklahoma.

DAVID BLATT, Oklahoma Policy Institute:  Whether you’re talking about urban areas or rural areas or suburban areas where you have middle-class families that tend to get out and vote, we have come to expect that there’s going to be a 4-year-old program there.

CAT WISE:  David Blatt is the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

DAVID BLATT:  Nobody has decided to go out to their constituents and say, we’re going to do away with this free early childhood program that you have been counting on.

CAT WISE:  Take Jennifer Doverspike.  She’s a Tulsa mother who entered her 4-year-old daughter Lucy (ph) in her neighborhood pre-K program.

JENNIFER DOVERSPIKE, Mother of Pre-K Student:  And I’m very proud of it, as a Tulsan and as an Oklahoman, to have a program like this that’s so great.

CAT WISE:  Doverspike loves the high-quality instruction.  Oklahoma pre-K teachers must have a college degree, an early education certificate, and they are paid the same salary as all K-12 teachers.

JENNIFER DOVERSPIKE:  As a parent, I am thrilled that this program exists, but a preschool is more beneficial to disadvantaged children.

And if it wasn’t the amount of money we’re spending on the program — where can that money go to best serve our citizens?  And the money is best served for children who truly need preschool.  A parent like me taking advantage of the program is a parent that could have been sending her child to a different preschool and spending money on it, and is now taking advantage of this because it’s free.

CAT WISE:  For his part, Professor Gormley continues to compare outcomes of the 2006 pre-K and non-pre-K students who are now in Tulsa’s ninth grade.

WILLIAM GORMLEY:  Do they differ in their letter grades?  Do they differ in their standardized test scores?  Do they differ in their behavior?  Are there more suspensions if the kids were not in pre-K?  Is there more absenteeism if the kids were not in pre-K?

All of these factors have been shown to be really important in determining future success in school, future success at work, and future success in life. 

CAT WISE:  Seventy-five percent of families here enroll their children in pre-kindergarten.  Some cities, including Denver, Seattle, and New York, have recently put in place Oklahoma’s universal model, while a number of states have chosen to increase funding for low-income pre-K.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Cat Wise in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.