It was 1990 before Oklahoma lawmakers grudgingly joined the rest of the nation and mandated kindergarten for 5-year-olds.
So how has the state — two decades later — become the undisputed leader in early childhood education?
“People ask me that question all time,” said the former assistant state superintendent, Ramona Paul, who is credited with helping to usher in Oklahoma’s early childhood revolution. “I don’t have an answer. It wasn’t like there was a grand plan.”
Thirteen years after the state passed landmark legislation making prekindergarten available through the public education system, business leaders hosted a conference in Oklahoma City to discuss the next step in 2012.
“Oklahoma has led the country for eight years in a row with the percentage of 4-year-olds who are enrolled in prekindergarten, and I think that’s an incredible accomplishment,” said Debra Andersen, the executive director of Smart Start Oklahoma, a nonprofit that unites early education stakeholders.
In 2010, 71 percent of Oklahoma’s 4-year-olds were in state-funded prekindergarten programs. That’s 37,356 children.
There is growing support across the state among business leaders to push Oklahoma’s prekindergarten program further. Part of the movement is coming from the Oklahoma Business Roundtable — a group of 115 CEOs from top corporations and businesses.
“I think that this is really catching on and people are starting to understand the benefits of us getting involved in this movement,” said Blake Wade, executive director of the Oklahoma Business Roundtable. “If we don’t take care of the ages under 5, it’s pretty accurate that we’re going to have a problem in the future with finding an educated workforce.”
Certainly there is more support for programs than when Bob Harbison and former Rep. Joe Eddins first proposed in the late ’90s expanding the state’s small prekindergarten program.
“We’ve got more support for enhancing our education system than I have seen in my lifetime,” said Harbison, 72, who pushed a freshmen lawmaker to introduce the universal prekindergarten bill in 1998.
“I really look at early childhood education as being an investment that pays off, and I think way, way too many people equate investment in early childhood education with what I would call welfare type hand outs to adults,” Harbison said. “I just don’t see it that way.”
Andersen said the state needs a comprehensive data system that can track student progress, assess gaps in services, and ensure the neediest children are receiving high-quality services.
“We are currently going through a process to determine if children who come from disadvantaged homes have access to quality programs,” Andersen said.
Universal prekindergarten programs, which were once high on the agenda of national policy institutions, are falling out of favor.
“There’s a corrective shift back to the established policy of ‘Let’s focus public dollars on the kids who benefit most,’” Fuller said. “Kids from poor families benefit from quality preschool more than children from middle class families, who don’t benefit that much.”