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Georgia and Oklahoma Show What’s Possible in Pre-K – and Where Challenges Lie

Early education advocates have been clamoring for details since Tuesday evening, when President Obama used his State of the Union to propose the goal of universal preschool for four-year olds. Today, the president’s visit to College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. will provide a stage for Obama to offer more information on how his administration hopes to advance this ambitious agenda.


In this post, we’ll look at why the White House may have chosen Georgia as the setting for this announcement, and why Obama also highlighted the pre-K system in another red state, Oklahoma. We’ll also review other exemplary state preschool efforts around the country.


The Georgia Pre-K Model

Georgia’s preschool program began in 1992 with a pilot specifically targeting 750 at-risk four-year-olds. Just three years later the program was opened up to all four-year-olds in the state, and 44,000 students enrolled in the 1995-1996 school year. By the 2010-2011 school year, that number had nearly doubled, with enrollment reaching 85,000 students -- approximately 61 percent of all four-year-olds in the state. Crucially, as enrollment increased, the state raised quality standards; since the 2010-2011 school year, pre-K teachers have been required to hold a bachelor’s degree to teach.


The FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill conducted a study of the Georgia pre-K program in December 2009. Researchers looked at both the quality of care in preschool centers, as well as the types of services provided to children. They used the Classroom Assessment Scoring System to measure teacher-child interactions, finding that pre-K classrooms throughout the state scored highest in social-emotional climate and classroom organization, but show significant need for improvement in instructional support.


The Oklahoma Pre-K Model

Sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box Tuesday evening was Susan Bumgarner, a pre-K educator from Oklahoma City. Oklahoma, which began offering universal pre-K in 1998, is considered a leader among the states in access and quality. Currently, 73.5 percent of the state’s four-year-olds are enrolled in half- or full-day preschool programming. Standards and pay are high; early childhood educators are required to hold a bachelor’s degree as well as early childhood certification, and are paid on the same scale as their elementary- and secondary-school counterparts.


Oklahoma’s pre-K programs have paid dividends in terms of students’ early outcomes during K-12. A series of studies from Georgetown researchers demonstrated that pre-K and Head Start programs in Tulsa can significantly boost pre-reading, pre-writing and pre-math skills as well as have an impact on social-emotional wellbeing. A broader state-wide study by Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found Oklahoma programs produce gains in early literacy skills, math skills and print awareness. These short-term effects have shown some evidence of fade-out by third grade, but Oklahoma has illustrated that early education can provide a firm foundation upon which to build academic gains.


How These Programs are Structured

In both of these red states, support for universal pre-K was built upon the leadership of individual politicians and private partners. In Georgia, leadership from Gov. Zell Miller, combined with support from the private sector, enabled the rapid expansion of programming in 1995. Oklahoma state legislator Joe Eddins (D), backed by businessman Bob Harbison, shepherded a 1998 bill to equalize funding for pre-K and kindergarten, facilitating swift growth of pre-K programming in districts.


Both programs have seen funding problems in recent years. The Georgia system, which is funded by the state lottery, had to make program cutbacks in 2011, and has a waiting list of several thousand children. In 2011, Oklahoma decreased spending per pre-K pupil by more than a thousand dollars, to $3,461.


Other State Pre-K Leaders

While not cited in the State of the Union, other states have made recent strides in developing strong early-childhood education programs. West Virginia is working to bring high-quality pre-K to all 4-year-olds, while New Jersey is planning to expand its successful pre-K initiative for low-income districts to all students for 2013-2014.


Florida, Vermont, Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, New York, Arkansas and South Carolina all have more than 40 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K. Connecticut recently expanded the number of preschool spots with the goal of eventually offering universal pre-K to all low-income students. In January, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick set forth a proposal for universal access to early education until age five.


With this renewed focus on early childhood education, hopefully states will strive to not only increase access, but also improve the quality of instruction for our youngest children.



This post has been updated to reflect the corrent number of Georgia preschool students enrolled in the 2010-2011 school year.