As Arkansas begins to develop its state budget priorities for the 2015 legislative session, it would do well to take note of the major investments that some of our neighboring states have made in young children. Take the case of Oklahoma, one of the nation’s leaders in providing quality Pre-K. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reported in their most recent Pre-K Yearbook that 27 of the 40 states that offer public pre-school for four-year-olds cut funding in 2012 by an average of 10 percent per child enrolled[i]. Arkansas’s funding was stagnant, as it has been since 2008. In 2012, Oklahoma’s funding went up $81 per child[ii].
Oklahoma is a conservative state socially and fiscally. It spends less per pupil on education than almost any other state, and its teacher pay ranks low nationally. But Oklahomans have seen the value of investing early. Oklahoma provides universal high-quality pre-K. What do we mean by high quality pre-K? In this case it means a ratio of no more than 10 students per staff member, and all teachers have a college degree.[iii] What do we mean by universal? Universal doesn’t mean mandatory. It just means that anyone can participate regardless of income level. Parents can choose not to participate if they prefer.
Conservatives in Oklahoma did have some qualms about expanding programs for children younger than school age. “Initially, people were concerned that we were ripping children out of the cradle, from their loving parents, and putting them into an institution,” said George Kaiser, a billionaire oilman who lives in Tulsa. “Eighty-eight percent of them were in day care already, and all we were trying to do was make that day care constructive and educational.”[iv] Now Oklahoma has the largest state-funded pre-K program for kids from birth to age three.
A decade-long study led by Georgetown University professor William Gormley found distinct advantages for Oklahoma pre-K kids upon entering kindergarten. According to the study, Tulsa pre-K students were ahead of peers in reading, writing, and math skills[v].
In comparison the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, our pre-K for four-year-olds and some three-year olds, is also providing quality educational experiences for low-income children. Our program is not universal but serves only children from families with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($47,100 for a family of four.) Research has been conducted on the ABC program to evaluate its effectiveness. Both the report from the Arkansas Research Center[vi] and the NIEER longitudinal study confirm that the Arkansas Better Chance program had positive effects on children’s vocabulary, math, and literacy.[vii]
Oklahoma clearly sees the value and efficiency of investing early in children. Arkansas continues to be a leader with its pre-K program. The program is still strong despite beginning to see the effects of no increased funding since 2008 to meet higher costs for meals and supplies. To remain a leader when other southern states are investing heavily in pre-K, Arkansas must com
[iii] Kristof, Nicholas. “The Oklahoma Model for American Pre-K.” New York Times. November 9, 2013.http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/09/the-oklahoma-model-for-american-pre-k/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
[v] Gormley, William, Gayer, Ted, Phillips, Deborah and Dawson, Brittany. “The effects of Oklahoma’s Universal Pre-K program on school readiness: an executive summary.” November, 2004. Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the U.S.