In 2015, 75 percent of Oklahoma’s 4 year olds were enrolled in public school prekindergarten. Only two states, Vermont and Florida, enrolled a higher percentage. Meanwhile, 26 states enrolled fewer than 20 percent of their 4 year olds. Another 14 states enrolled fewer than 40 percent. You would think that if large prekindergarten programs led to success, Oklahoma would provide the evidence. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s outsized public prekindergarten program likely accomplishes little more than enlarging the state’s school bureaucracy and providing free childcare.
Oklahoma’s prekindergarten program has been around long enough that if it really makes a difference, Oklahoma should have seen some gains relative to the rest of the country. In fact, Oklahoma’s 4th graders consistently score below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), despite a much celebrated blip in 2015 that was completely erased by 2017. It’s not as if the country-wide results are rocketing skyward and we are just lagging a little. NAEP results nationwide are flat.
Despite the less-than-stellar results, Oklahoma formula-funds prekindergarten at an extraordinary level, and has for more than 20 years. A prekindergarten student’s formula-funding is 30 percent higher than a 4th grader’s, and over 8 percent higher than a middle or high school child’s. Private school pricing in Oklahoma, not determined by politics, charges a slight premium for pre-school ages compared to other low grades, but nothing like the funding premium in public school formulas.
It makes sense to charge more for schooling 4 year olds than for 4th graders. Fourth graders respond more predictably to rules and discipline, are far less likely to have restroom issues, and they can sit still longer. But private school pricing suggests only a 5 percent bump in prekindergarten funding over 4th grade.
Why is public school funding for prekindergarten so high? One reason might be that there is a college-educated individual who qualifies for the minimum teacher salary schedule (at lowest, $37k this year) in every classroom. Prekindergarten classes are held to 20 or fewer students, and more than 10 students require a teaching assistant, according to a law that has been relaxed but is still largely adhered to. Though subject to regulation, private schools still find it less necessary to have college graduates work with 4 year olds and have greater flexibility with what they pay.
The political pressure for universal prekindergarten programs has been bolstered by research on early-age brain development and its seeming implications for life-time intelligence, indicating urgency for getting children into learning environments. Recently, an ongoing study of Tulsa’s prekindergarten results indicated tangible benefits for prekindergarten participants, that they are more ready for kindergarten.
For those of us who didn’t attend kindergarten, much less prekindergarten, but still managed a PhD in economics or, in the case of my brother, helped to engineer the Joint Strike Fighter, prekindergarten’s benefits seem mighty sparse. The fact is, prekindergarten’s positive effects on standardized test scores have long proven temporary. But recently, the Arnold Foundation’s Straight Talk on Evidence website reviewed results of a large randomized trial from Tennessee that shows prekindergarten has mostly negative long-term effects kicking in by third grade.
Because of our large prekindergarten program, our education funding is spread more thinly over more students, as compared to most states. Scaling back Oklahoma’s prekindergarten system to half its current size would save $140 million and the program would still be larger than those of most states. It might be time to rethink and limit our state’s prekindergarten to the truly disadvantaged, hopefully without hurting their future academic success.
Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute, a think tank based in Oklahoma City.