This session, Ada Senator Greg McCortney filed SB 11, which would move cutoff dates for children entering pre-kindergarten (pre-K) from September 1 to July 1. If this change takes effect, students would have to turn four by July 1st rather than September 1st to be eligible for pre-K. Oklahoma would be the only state to have a cutoff before July 31st. The change would delay pre-K eligibility by a year for children who are two months shy of the new cutoff date.
Sen. McCortney explained that SB 11 intends to give children more time to mature. While the bill addresses teachers’ valid concerns, moving the pre-K cutoff date would mean rolling back significant progress Oklahoma has made as a leader in universal early childhood education. The change would restrict parental control over when to send their children to school and minimize proven benefits of early childhood interventions. SB 11 would particularly hurt low-income families and children of color who benefit most from pre-K programs. Delaying pre-K for Oklahoma’s children is not a win for our state.
Oklahoma is a leader in universal pre-K
While likely not its intent, SB 11 actually restricts access to pre-K for parents who believe their children will benefit from entering pre-K as a “young” 4-year old, and it does little else.
In 1998, Oklahoma became the third state in the nation to offer free, voluntary universal pre-kindergarten for all four-year old children. Since that time, Oklahoma has topped other states with 75 percent of eligible four-year-olds enrolled, and the state has received high marks for quality. The state requires pre-K teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree and certification in early childhood education and ensures that classes with more than ten students have a teaching assistant.
Oklahoma’s education leaders understood that high-quality programs are essential to making gains in a state where children experience significant poverty. Currently, 21 percent of Oklahoma children live in poverty, and 71 percent of fourth graders scored below proficient in reading. School-readiness is a robust predictor of long-term reading and math achievement, and of overall well-being. Getting children into school early can significantly help students overcome barriers related to poverty.
Children experiencing poverty are less likely to be school ready
Children in families experiencing poverty face greater psychological distress from economic insecurity that can negatively impact their cognitive and emotional development. Students in high-poverty districts, such as Ada, are likely to enter school a year behind their peers in academic skills and without the proper socioemotional skills needed to succeed. While giving children extra time to mature before starting school is well-intentioned, there is little reason to expect that low-income students will be any more prepared for the curriculum or learning environment by spending an additional year out of the classroom. In fact, results from Tulsa’s pre-K program show that students who attend pre-K are more kindergarten ready (measured by higher cognitive, motor, and language skills) than their peers who just missed pre-K cut off dates and entered the following year.
SB 11 would delay school readiness for students who need it the most
Our state has made school readiness a top priority because lawmakers and educators understand that the state’s high-quality pre-K can dramatically reduce achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color and significantly improve language, literacy and math skills for all children. Critical learning pathways develop between the ages of zero to five, and ensuring that children begin kindergarten with the skills they need is the most effective way to reduce disparities as students advance through school. Oklahoma business leaders have long supported early learning initiatives because they understand the vital link between early childhood education and a future skilled workforce. In short, SB 11 would not fix the problem it aims to address. Instead, it would delay progress for kids who need pre-K the most.
SB 11 is well-intentioned but not evidence-based
The push behind SB 11 stems primarily from teachers who are concerned that some children entering pre-K are not developmentally ready to begin school. Sen. McCortney heard from teachers in Ada who said that their pre-K students sometimes are not fully potty-trained, and they often feel like they are working in a daycare rather than a school. SB 11 supporters believe that children with late birthdays would benefit from a delayed start date, by spending an extra year out of the classroom in order to mature before entering pre-K. However, pushing the pre-K start date back does not align with research that shows how participation in quality pre-K can significantly boost school readiness for children of diverse races, ethnicities, and income brackets.
SB 11 could widen the opportunity gap
Moving the pre-K cutoff date back to July 1st could unintentionally exacerbate the opportunity gap by preventing children from gaining the skills they need to be kindergarten-ready. The decision to send your child to pre-K is already voluntary in Oklahoma, so parents currently have the option to hold their child back and wait a year before sending them to pre-K. While likely not its intent, SB 11 actually restricts access to pre-K for parents who believe their children will benefit from entering pre-K as a “young” 4-year old, and it does little else.
We should address root causes rather than symptoms
While SB 11 would do little to address teacher concerns at the heart of the bill, this does not mean that these issues should be ignored. Pre-K teachers are tasked with great challenges given the enormous potential early learning can have on students’ future success. Instead of delaying school, we should focus on equipping teachers with proper resources to adequately meet student needs. All children enter school with varying abilities, and low-income students often need additional supports to help them overcome barriers. A thorough look into the challenges facing early education teachers would help identify the root cause of these concerns, so that solutions properly address the underlying problems in our youngest classrooms. Unfortunately, SB 11 misses this mark and may instead worsen a problem it intends to correct.
[Image Source: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr]