It is far nicer to be able to brag about successes in our state than to explain why other areas rank near the bottom. I luckily found myself in this position recently. The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, was in Oklahoma for a conference with other mayors of major metropolitan areas. I was fortunate that one of my college friends works for him, so that led to me spending two hours over some of the best barbecue in our state and discussing what Oklahoma has done right with pre-K and early childhood education.
Mayor de Blasio has led the effort in his hometown to provide free pre-school to all 4-year-olds living there. This has been a costly endeavor, but the rewards have been real for providing greater opportunities for those youngsters showing progress with educational development. In New York City, as of 2015, some 65,000 children had enrolled in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new, universal preschool program.
This effort puts New York City at the forefront of a movement which has yet to take hold in many American cities. The price tag is high as De Blasio’s program costs roughly $400 million a year. In addition, ensuring preschool is “high quality” isn’t just expensive, it’s also a logistical challenge: recruiting and vetting teachers and determining which private providers meet the city’s standard.
Fortunately for Oklahoma, this endeavor is nothing new. Early childhood education truly began here under the tenure of State School Superintendents Leslie Fisher and Sandy Garrett. The late Dr. Ramona Paul, who has been recognized nationally for moving Oklahoma into the top spot, was the driving force tasked with making this program a reality.
Dr. Paul began her challenge with this in 1980. Only ten school districts were a part of the original pilot program, and those added on following were dependent upon state appropriated dollars. It truly gained momentum with a law passed in 1998 which would include all Pre-K programs in the state aid formula. It was also at this point that community-based private programs were allowed to partner with schools to provide additional dollars to enhance opportunities. In 2003, Gov. Brad Henry signed legislation making state-funded 4-year-old programs available to virtually every child in Oklahoma.
With recent state budget struggles, there have been private champions who have stepped forward. Benefactors such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, and the Inasmuch Foundation have helped fill budget gaps and even expanded into 3-year-old programs. Even with this aid, according to the Kids Count Data Center, 61,000 of Oklahoma’s 3 and 4-year-olds, or 57% of Oklahomans at this age, are not enrolled in some type of program.
Mayor de Blasio took a big step forward for the future of kids in New York City. I am thankful pioneers such as our former state superintendents and Dr. Ramona Paul saw this need more than 35 years ago and delivered on better opportunities for our youngsters. Now, it is our job to ensure that momentum keeps going forward for the children of Oklahoma.