WHEN the leader of the free world praises your state on a national stage, people pay attention — and ask lots of questions. This has certainly been the case since local pre-kindergarten teacher Susan Bumgarner represented Oklahoma at the State of the Union address. President Barack Obama extolled the virtues of early childhood education and suggested that all states make “high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
This month, the pre-K program in Putnam City schools was highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article that called Oklahoma a “test case” for public preschool. A kindergarten teacher at Western Oaks Elementary talked about the increase in school readiness that she's seen since most of her students have attended pre-K. “We can jump right into academics the first week,” Kim Jones said.
The limelight, of course, can be harsh. “It's unclear where the billions of dollars would be found each year to pay for pre-kindergarten or whether the government would ever see a financial return on its investment,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial. Even if the money is available, the newspaper said, “states should be concerned about how much the U.S. Department of Education will try to dictate the curriculum in exchange for its money.”
Research on the short- and long-term affects of pre-K is mixed. One of the biggest criticisms is that learning gains from pre-K tend to fade only a few years later. Is that really a pre-K issue? Or does it point to concerns with other early elementary school grades?
Public school pre-k has become such an integral part of the common education fabric in Oklahoma that it seems odd other states are still debating the merits. Many preschool programs here are full day and teachers must meet the same standards as other elementary school teachers. They are paid at the same rate.
Investing in the state's youngest students is wise. Many Oklahoma students tend to start their school careers well behind their peers. To the extent that early childhood education can level the playing field — or at least keep the gap from continuing to widen — it's money well spent. But pre-K isn't the proverbial silver bullet. It's simply the beginning of a very long road with many twists and turns.
Details are sketchy, but Obama proposed working with states for pre-K expansion. State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi told the Journal she's not much interested in taking federal money for pre-K if it comes with strings attached, even though she and other education leaders are asking state lawmakers for increased common education funding.
It's too soon to know whether Obama's plan will fizzle out. And frankly, even if it does, it's not a bad thing for Americans to have meaningful conversations about the importance and affordability of school readiness and how to better prepare children for school at a time when children are expected to know more and do more at an increasingly early age.
If we're going to talk about education — and talk we must — the beginning is a good place to start.