On October 28 of last year, after months of tense negotiations with progressive and moderate lawmakers in his own party, President Joe Biden walked into the East Room of the White House to announce a “framework” for his stalled Build Back Better bill. Among the policies that would be funded by the $1.75 trillion initiative was a $400 billion commitment to lower the cost of child care and expand access to pre-kindergarten. If enacted, the plan would “finally take us from 12 years to 14 years of universal education in America,” Biden said.
For advocates of universal preschool, it seemed like a watershed moment. With Democrats in control of the Senate, supporters of expanded pre-K access were optimistic that, whatever details might be changed in the legislative process, the president would soon sign a bill that ushered in a new era of federal support for early education of the country’s young children. Finally, after decades of slow but steady growth in pre-K access at the state level, the federal government was going to dedicate billions of dollars to improve the patchwork of state, local, and private pre-K programs that left millions of families without high-quality early childhood education.
Given the Senate’s 50-50 split, pundits figured that the odds of Biden being able to pass sweeping social policy were slim. But it still came as a shock to pre-K advocates when the bill was wholly shattered on December 19, in a familiar graveyard for Democratic dream—Fox News Sunday. To the surprise of many in Washington (including the Biden administration, which was given only 30 minutes of advance notice), Senator Joe Manchin delivered a bombshell, stating, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.” Just like that, the 50 votes needed to pass Build Back Better disappeared, along with the hopes of many who had believed that the country was finally going to make a national commitment to educating its youngest people.
Despite several months of reassurances since Manchin’s announcement that the senator and the White House are still engaged in closed-door pre-K negotiations, it now seems clear that the window of opportunity has all but closed for Democrats, on their own, to pass transformational federal legislation to provide the 14 years of education that Biden envisioned in his October speech. Senate Republicans have countered with a far more modest bill to broaden eligibility for receiving child care assistance, but those funds would not be available for pre-K programs.
What this means is that, once again, any hopes of expanding pre-K probably rest on efforts at the state and local levels. The irony is that when you ask advocates which state has the most effective pre-K program in the country, many will say, without hesitation, Oklahoma. The same ruby-red state that recently passed a near-total abortion ban and last supported a Democrat for president in 1964 has operated a no-cost pre-K program open to all four-year-olds regardless of income since 1998. How that came to be, and what it teaches about the best way forward for pre-K, is worth a deeper look.
The question of whether public pre-K is beneficial for children has largely been answered: The majority of rigorous evaluations of large-scale, public pre-K programs have found that children who attend these programs are better prepared for kindergarten compared to their peers who do not. Many of the studies find that the benefits of pre-K extend well past kindergarten into middle and high school, and sometimes all the way into adulthood. The question facing policy makers today is not so much “Should there be a public pre-K program?” but, rather, how exactly a public pre-K program should be designed to ensure that it reaches as many young children as possible and provides them with a developmentally appropriate education that will prepare them for the years ahead.
The story of how Oklahoma established its widely praised statewide pre-K program is not exactly a lesson in legislative best practice. A Democratic state legislator slipped the pre-K provisions into an existing bill meant to close a loophole in the state school funding formula that allowed school districts to enroll four-year-olds in kindergarten in order to receive extra funding. “It was not a stand-alone bill, which meant it got less attention,” says Steven Dow, a longtime early childhood education advocate in Oklahoma who helped get the law passed. “You want to talk about stuff that really nobody understands, start mucking with the state aid funding formula.” Were most of the state’s legislators aware that they were essentially voting to fund a new grade level for four-year-olds? “Almost nobody knew,” Dow says. As a result of the vote, not only did the state establish a public pre-K program, it funded that program through the state school funding formula, making it resistant to the whims of the annual appropriations process.
In the 2019–20 school year, about 70 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds were enrolled in the state’s voluntary public pre-K program, which is funded at about $4,600 per child. Students attend pre-K in public schools, Head Start centers, child care centers, and community-based programs. Most of the programs operate for a full day, providing flexibility to parents who are unable to leave work early to pick up their children from school. Lead teachers are required to have a college degree as well as specialized training in early childhood education, and they receive the same wage as the state’s K–12 educators. That specialized training is key, because three- and four-year-olds—as you might expect—learn much differently than older children. Rather than consuming information largely through teacher-led instruction, young children build knowledge through conversation, play, and exploration.
Oklahoma’s preschool class sizes are capped at 20 students, and the student-teacher ratio cannot exceed 10 to 1. While participation by both school districts and students is voluntary, every district in the Sooner State has opted into the program, and it remains quite popular among parents, judging by how many of them choose to enroll their children in it. “All indications are that the program is enormously popular with Oklahoma residents, and that they would protest bitterly and loudly if anyone tried to eliminate or dilute the program,” says William Gormley, a Georgetown University researcher who has conducted extensive research into the state’s program.
While a growing number of states and cities have followed Oklahoma’s lead and established pre-K programs, the programs vary considerably in terms of funding, length of the school day, teacher education requirements, and average class size. Florida, for example, also operates a pre-K program that is open to all of the state’s four-year-olds, regardless of family income level. But that’s about where the similarities with Oklahoma’s program end. Florida only provides about $2,500 in funding per child, and most districts charge tuition for parents who need to enroll their child for a full day of instruction rather than the three hours per day typically provided free of charge. Lead teachers in Florida’s pre-K program have lower education requirements than Oklahoma’s—their minimum requirement is a child development associate credential, which can generally be obtained in less than a year.
Oklahoma’s higher standards show up in the results the state sees from children who have attended their pre-K program. Gormley and his colleagues at Georgetown’s Center for Research on Children in the United States have spent two decades studying the effects of universal pre-K in Tulsa. They observed almost all of the city’s pre-K classrooms operating as part of the state program during the 2005–06 school year and concluded that those classrooms’ teachers were offering stronger instructional support compared with pre-K classrooms in other states. The researchers also examined the effects of attending the program on children’s cognitive skills, such as the ability to identify letters and numbers. They found that, at kindergarten entry, pre-K participants were nine months ahead of their peers in pre-reading skills, seven months ahead in pre-writing skills, and five months ahead in pre-math skills. The single best predictor of a child’s verbal test scores at kindergarten entry was whether the child participated in pre-K. And while all children benefited from attending the pre-K program, English language learners and students from low-income families gained the most.
More recently, Gormley and his colleagues have investigated whether the benefits of attending Oklahoma’s pre-K program persist all the way into high school or fade out as the children move through their academic career. While preschool attendance was not associated with higher grades or test scores in high school, Tulsa high school students who attended pre-K missed less school, were less likely to fail courses and be held back, and were more likely to take an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course.
Assuming that Joe Manchin and the White House are unable to hammer out an unexpected, last-minute compromise that saves Biden’s early education agenda, what can states and cities looking to expand and improve their pre-K programs learn from a state like Oklahoma? The state’s legislative trickery aside, recent election results in Colorado and Portland, Oregon—where voters recently approved the establishment of universal pre-K—give reason for confidence that programs can become a reality by directly appealing to voters rather than relying on sneaky tactics, at least and especially in blue states and municipalities.
First, at a time when many states have the enviable challenge of figuring out what to do with record surpluses thanks to federal relief funds and strong consumer spending, it would be wise to invest in universal pre-K programs that serve all children regardless of family income. Though these relief funds are finite, advocates could make the political argument that they should be set aside to pre-fund universal preschool for a given number of years, with additional funding mechanisms identified and ultimately phased in. Serving more children comes at a higher financial cost, of course, but it also means that more children reap the benefits, more parents have firsthand knowledge of the program’s impact, and, potentially, popular support for the program overall increases. Well-resourced pre-K programs end up serving as their own PR.
Rather than offering preschool to all children regardless of income, most states with pre-K programs choose to limit eligibility to children who meet certain risk factors—most commonly, this is based on family income, but can also include children who are dual-language learners, involved in the foster care system, or living in unstable housing. This can make sense given limited financial resources, since research suggests that while all children benefit from pre-K, it’s children from low-income families who stand to gain the most. But the same studies of preschool programs make clear that middle-class children also make substantial gains in school readiness by participating in a high-quality pre-K program.
And research suggests that children from low-income families actually benefit more from attending a universal program than one targeted at children experiencing poverty. Recently, Elizabeth Cascio, a Dartmouth economist, used a large, nationally representative data set to compare about 5,000 four-year-olds from 33 states who attended either universal pre-K, targeted pre-K, or no pre-K. She found that kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a common indicator of lower-income students) had significantly higher test scores when they went to a universal pre-K program, rather than a targeted one. “The programs that aren’t explicitly targeting low-income children seem to do a better job at elevating their preparedness for kindergarten,” Cascio says. There are a few theories as to why this is the case. It could be that disadvantaged children benefit from the presence of more affluent peers in the same classroom (a theory supported by studies of K–12 education). Another possibility is that universal programs tend to attract higher-quality teachers, who set higher academic expectations for a classroom full of mixed-income children.
States would also do well to follow Oklahoma’s example of funding pre-K through their school funding formula, if not the state’s surreptitious way of passing it. While these formulas, which generally allocate money based on a per-student funding amount, are widely used for K–12 funding, they are relatively rare for pre-K. But funding preschool through the state’s funding formula generally results in more robust, stable funding that does not rely on annual legislative appropriations and is less susceptible to economic downturns or the political whims of state legislators. During the Great Recession, for example, pre-K programs that were funded via state formula weathered the downturn much better than those that relied on legislators forced to choose how to slice up a much smaller economic pie. Specifically, a comparison of pre-K per-pupil funding levels from 2005–06 to 2015–16 found that formula states saw an average of 3.6 percent annualized growth in per-pupil funding over the 10-year period compared to a rate of only 1.1 percent for non-formula states.
Finally, Oklahoma’s policy of paying pre-K teachers the same wage and benefits as the state’s K–12 educators is relatively rare among states, but worthy of emulation (even if the wages the state traditionally paid all its teachers, penurious until a successful teachers’ strike in 2018, are not). Many educators of the nation’s youngest children earn poverty-level wages. At the same time, research suggests that the quality and warmth of the daily interactions between teacher and student are perhaps the most important factors for supporting young children’s learning and ensuring their healthy development. Paying educators of young children a middle-class salary can help reduce staff turnover and provide students with the stability throughout the school year that they need to build a trusting relationship with the adults in the classroom.
Passing new legislation like universal preschool is never easy, be it at the state or federal level. Oklahoma’s pre-K legislation became a reality because it was passed via a legislative back door without much fanfare or public attention. But Oklahoma’s story shows that, regardless of political ideology or what people might say in a poll when asked about their policy preferences, universal pre-K has durable, bipartisan appeal once it is implemented. It’s easy to see why—it’s just good policy. Universal pre-K programs benefit everyone involved, from children making early strides to parents who don’t have to worry about child care to companies whose employees can stay in the workforce because the program has absorbed a significant portion of their child care needs. And given the gains that pre-K students have shown later in their academic career, a universal program could improve outcomes for states’ existing K–12 systems down the road.
Democrats should broker whatever compromise is necessary to push the federal pre-K plan across the finish line, but state lawmakers should be prepared to act if Congress falls short. Oklahoma shows that it will be worth it.
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