Oklahoma was one of the first states in the nation to offer universal pre-kindergarten, and today 74 percent of all Oklahoma four-year-olds attend public pre-K. Oklahoma is a national leader in early childhood education, which builds a critical foundation for long-term academic success. Unfortunately, a bill this session could roll back this progress. Representative Johns, R-Ada, filed HB 2908, which would move cutoff dates for children entering pre-kindergarten (pre-K) from September 1 to July 1. If the bill passes, children would have to turn four by July 1 rather than September 1 to be eligible for pre-K. The change would make Oklahoma the only state to have a cutoff before July 31, and delay pre-K eligibility by a year for children who are two months shy of the new cutoff date. Last session, Senator McCortney, R-Ada, filed a similar bill that did not make it to a floor vote.
The proposed change could be harmful to low-income children who benefit from early childhood education. Moving the pre-K cutoff date would remove parental control over when to send their children to school and give parents less access to early childhood education. HB 2908 is counter to evidence-based practices that work for children.
Access to high-quality pre-K can help children overcome barriers
In 1998, Oklahoma became the third state in the nation to offer free, voluntary universal pre-kindergarten for all four-year-old children. Oklahoma’s education leaders understood that high-quality programs are essential to making gains in a state where a higher proportion of children live in poverty than most states in the nation.
Currently, 22 percent of Oklahoma children experience poverty and often face barriers that make it difficult to excel in school. Students from low-income families are 13 times less likely to graduate on time, and on average they are more likely to score below proficient in reading and math. Getting children into school early can significantly help students overcome obstacles related to poverty.
Early intervention is crucial for Oklahoma children
While all children have access to free public pre-K in Oklahoma, the decision to send your child is voluntary. HB 2908 would restrict access to pre-K for parents who believe their children will benefit from entering pre-K as a “young” 4-year-old. Requiring that parents delay pre-K entrance does not mean that students will be more school-ready the following year. Families experiencing poverty sometimes lack the resources needed to fully equip young children for school.
Early interventions such as quality pre-K can significantly boost school readiness. 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 pre-K the following year. Interventions during the earliest years — especially for low-income students– is critical for long-term academic success.
Access to pre-K is good for Oklahoma’s economy
Quality early childhood education can boost academic achievement in school and help more students get to and through college. This is why Oklahoma business leaders have supported quality early childhood education as a long-term strategy to ensure a skilled workforce. Expanding access to early learning in pre-K can have a positive long-term impact on economic growth and yield a significant return on investment. On average, every $1 invested in early learning has a 13 percent annual return. Restricting early access to early childhood education could diminish these returns and shortchange our long-term investments.
We should invest in the right supports for teachers
HB 2908 could also cause unintended disruptions for educators in the short term. The cutoff changes would likely require school districts to reduce the number of pre-K teachers the year after the bill takes effect, and lose funding that year as well. While these teachers may be hired back the following year, it is unlikely that the disruption would lead to more positive student outcomes.
Pre-K teachers are tasked with immense challenges, and they need adequate support. Instead of delaying school, we should focus on equipping teachers with proper resources to meet student needs. All children enter school with varying abilities, and low-income students often need additional resources 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 policy reform leads to better outcomes for children.