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.