How does the United States perform in providing preschool care? An OECD report provides a summary and compares us with other wealthy OECD nations. In terms of the fraction of four-year-old children participating in a preschool program, we fall at number 28 out of 38 countries. Not only are we behind comparable countries, the way we approach the issue seems intended to enhance inequality rather than damp it out. Instead of the majority of children being enrolled in a common program, nearly half of our children are enrolled in private programs. Also, the quality of instruction provided, both public and private, is very uneven since there are no universal standards. As in so many other areas, those who can afford the best get the best.
Providing quality instruction to all preschool children would be a desirable goal. It was interesting to come across a report that indicated that the state of Oklahoma actually had the best and most universal program for four-year-olds. Sharon Lerner provided an article titled Pre-K on the Range in The American Prospect. She begins with this lede:
Oklahoma is definitely conservative and rural, but the term impoverished deserves some elaboration. While many people qualify as living in poverty, there is a lot of wealth in the state. The issue is being able to share wealth in a productive manner.
Lerner attributes the guiding philosophy for Oklahoma’s program to Ramona Paul who worked in the state Department of Education, and the implementation to a Democratic legislator named Joe Eddins.
Eddins was successful because the most important constituency of all was convinced that such a program was in their best interests.
Lerner ascribes some cleverness and subtlety to Eddins’s means of getting this most progressive of bills passed in this most conservative of legislatures. What he accomplished was both simple in concept and powerful in execution, and can serve as an example of how other states could address the initiation of a universal program.
"This seemingly small detail may be the key difference separating Oklahoma from other states, such as Arizona and Illinois, where pre-K funding was slashed during the recent recession. Indeed, in Oklahoma, pre-K is essentially just another grade—as unlikely to be singled out as [any other]."
Another advantage of putting pre-K on the same footing as other grades is that comparably qualified teachers can be recruited for pre-K and be paid on the same scale as teachers in the higher grades. And funding for pre-K students is not subject to lower standards. Lerner tells us that Oklahoma spends about $7400 on each of its preschoolers, a level that allows it to attract quality teachers, keep class sizes low, and provide a healthy learning environment.
Part of Eddins’s strategy in getting his legislation passed was to make participation voluntary. Oklahoma’s experience with participation indicates the degree to which there is demand for quality and affordable preschools.
The thought of starting from scratch in a state and organizing a universal preschool program at this point in time seems foolhardy. But what about the approach taken by Oklahoma: just add another grade? The educational, administrative, and legislative simplifications that ensue are rather startling.
Could this be the best way to approach the problem? It seems worth the try.