President Joe Biden’s desire to have universal early childhood education would give the nation what Oklahoma has offered for 25 years.
The state is a national leader in early education expansion that includes options for parents, a research institution and higher education credentials for pre-K teachers.
In 1998, the state education department added 4-year-olds to the per-pupil funding for public school districts to develop voluntary programs. It became the second state in the U.S. to offer free pre-K to all parents.
Now, nearly every Oklahoma district has a pre-K option with more than 75% of the state’s 4-year-olds enrolled in those public programs.
Early education is meant to better prepare children for elementary classrooms. Before Oklahoma’s universal pre-K, many children were arriving for kindergarten and first grade without basic skills such as writing their name, recognizing letters or holding a book.
This was particularly so in low-income neighborhoods. Children starting out behind have a much more difficult time accelerating.
Rather than target early education to specific groups, state officials decided all children would benefit. That has proven correct.
Researchers from institutions such as Georgetown University and Harvard University consistently find improvements in social and academic skills across all categories of children participating in the programs. The most significant are among those from low-income families.
In 2006, the Early Childhood Education Institute was founded at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa campus. It has multiple ongoing projects to advance best practices and equity in early education programs and policies.
Tulsa Community College and OU-Tulsa have degree programs in early childhood education up to the doctorate level. Other colleges and universities have added early childhood degrees.
Philanthropists, led by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, developed more comprehensive programs around early education to intervene in generational poverty. Programs such as Educare and Tulsa’s federal Head Start regularly host national and international officials wanting to replicate the programs.
Oklahoma knows the worthwhile investment of early education. It’s time all children across the U.S. have what our state has been giving to young children and their parents for decades.