Oklahoma is accustomed to being the national leader in access to prekindergarten programs. The 2011 State of Preschool report reveals that we've lost the top spot. The report raises concerns about declining per-pupil funding. But don't panic yet. We've only fallen to No. 2.
The report released recently by the National Institute of Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, showed that Florida has usurped the No. 1 position with 76 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in a program, slightly besting Oklahoma's historic high of 74 percent. But quantity doesn't always equate to quality: Oklahoma meets nine of 10 quality standards benchmarks; Florida meets only three.
Oklahoma's per-child state spending was down in 2011 from a decade-high figure in 2010, resulting in a rank of 27th. When counting all reported spending, however, the amount per child more than doubles, elevating Oklahoma to ninth place. Additionally, the decline in state spending doesn't represent a targeted assault on pre-K, which has some measure of budget protection. As part of the school funding formula, lower pre-K funding is based on lower overall education funding that also affects K-12.
The trend across school districts, including Oklahoma City and Putnam City, is to increase pre-K offerings. Participation in half-day programs declined between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, but the greater increase in full-day program enrollment resulted in a net gain, according to data from the state Department of Education. Spreading resources among more children further contributes to the lower per-pupil figure.
In the equation of enrollment, funding and quality, the focus should be on preparing students for success. High enrollment and money alone don't ensure a top-notch program. We need to make sure we're getting the best return on investment for any state dollars spent.
While expressing concerns about future financial hurdles, Steve Barnett, director of the institute compiling the report, called Oklahoma's program “the most-studied and arguably the most successful program in the nation.” Translation for 4-year-olds: pre-K in Oklahoma gets a gold star.