We stand up for a Massachusetts where everyone gets a fair shot, does and pays their fair share, and plays by the same rules.
The example of the Oklahoma early education and childcare plan is one that is frequently invoked in the national debate on early education, yet more often than not, goes unexplained. So, I thought that I would use this space to get into some of the specifics of the Oklahoma plan: what it entails, the results it has gotten, and the costs associated with it.
The Oklahoma childcare plan consists of full access to state-sponsored preschool for four-year-olds, need-based access to early education and childcare for children younger than four, and state-supported home visits by social workers who help parents and interact directly with children. It has existed since 1998, with pilot programs dating back to 1980, which means that there is a wealth of observational data on the impacts of the program.
Free preschool for all of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Oklahoma program is that they guarantee a year of free preschool to every four year old. This preschool is offered through classrooms integrated into K-12 school districts, which is a unique feature for a statewide program.
The state has set comprehensive standards for academic development, social development, and physical health. Many of the structural benchmarks for quality preschool education set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) are met: Oklahoma preschools guarantee EC-certified teachers, a 10:1 child to teacher ratio, school services equivalent those of K-12 students, and a school readiness program for students.
This program is available to all four-year-olds in the state, though as it is not mandatory, it tops out at around 75% enrollment, about what can be expected when taking into account the demand for private or religious education by some parents. By the numbers, the program is a success: it ranks 3rd in the nation in accessibility, 7th in per-child resources, and meets 9/10 NIEER quality benchmarks.
Center care, Head Start and home visits available for children 0-3
For children younger than four, a variety of services are available on a need basis. Center-based care is available at places like Educare centers—part of a national network that is the main early childcare partner of the Oklahoma Department of Education—and is supported by state subsidies. The programs at those centers focus on social and cognitive development, and are also more flexible than the preschool program for four-year-olds.
Oklahoma also administers Head Start programs and provides subsidies for other licensed early education providers.
The state sponsors home visits to low-income families by social workers who interact with the kids on a regular basis, as well as share techniques for fostering child development with parents. Families can participate in both programs, and the combination of the two provides fairly comprehensive care for kids under four. Studies done by Educare and independent researchers have indicated positive results for this type of program.
Oklahoma’s early ed program enjoys wide-ranging support
Education has historically been a bipartisan issue, and the Oklahoma program was started with broad support from elected officials – as well as philanthropists, school officials and teachers. It continues to be something that elected officials all over the state agree on.
In a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof detailing the successes of the program, a Republican member of the Tulsa City Council called the program a “no-brainer,” while the Tulsa Union of Public Schools superintendent raved, “It’s a huge jump-start for kids.” Meanwhile, advocacy groups and concerned journalists around the country have lauded the Oklahoma program for its success.
Research backs up the strong support. Most prominently, a study by a team from Georgetown University led by William T. Gormley Jr., concluded that “children exposed to pre-K experience a gain of seven to eight months in letter-word identification, six to seven months in spelling, and four months in applied problems, above and beyond the gains of aging or maturation.” Furthermore, the team estimated that the benefits of the program would end up outweighing the costs by a ratio of 3:1.
Another study, performed by NIEER and using data from early education programs in Oklahoma and four other states, found that participation in quality preschool programs increased the score growth—a measure of improvement over time in different academic areas—in vocabulary, math, and print concepts (an area that could best be described as pre-reading skills) by 31, 44, and 85 percent respectively over children who did not attend preschool. As the researchers noted in their findings:
This study… estimated the effects on children’s learning in five states that represent a broad cross section of the United States–north and south, east and west, urban and rural. Remarkably, across them all we found significant and meaningful effects on children’s language, literacy, and math skills. This study provides strong evidence that quality preschool programs produce broad gains in children’s learning and development at kindergarten entry.
The fact that the gains were replicable across a wide variety of demographic and systemic differences (particularly in terms of program size) is especially compelling. The studies show that as long as programs meet quality benchmarks, we can expect similar gains in academic achievement, even using alternate delivery systems for childcare.
What should Massachusetts learn from Oklahoma?
Massachusetts early education programs face two problems: access and quality. To bring access to nationally-leading levels (70-75%) and meet the quality standards set by NIEER, specifically by expanding the system to take in more kids and by increasing teacher salaries to reduce turnover and attract greater numbers of qualified applicants, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center pegs the highest cost estimates of “greatly [expanding] access to high-quality early education and care [at] about $300 million to $400 million per year.”
On the low end, they estimate that the most cost-effective means of providing broad coverage for preschoolers in Massachusetts could cost as little as $143 million. Overall, there is a wide range of potential early education plans for the state that would all have the potential to drastically improve the lives of the families they cover.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about around 1% of the total state budget (the proposed FY2015 is over $32 billion). Moreover, we could pay for the entire program if we eliminated corporate tax loopholes that allow multinational corporations to hide profits in offshore tax havens. MASSPIRG calculates that closing offshore tax haven loopholes would add $991 million to the state budget (not to mention that it’s the right thing to do).
In the end, Oklahoma proves that universal preschool can be accomplished, and have a proven track record of results. In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on education, but it’s clear that when it comes to early education, we’re far behind Oklahoma. It’s time we catch up.