Pew Center’s Doggett praises state early childhood education model

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 10-May-2010

Last Thursday at the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club, an education policy symposium was combined with accolades for one of Oklahoma’s most influential modern educators. The gathering included Dr. Libby Doggett, deputy director of the Pew Center on the States and the Pew Charitable Trust, based in Washington, D.C., who joined many state leaders to praise the work of an assistant state superintendent.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett was a lead player at the event, which commenced with a private noon hour luncheon for friends of Assistant State Superintendent Ramona Paul. Dr. Paul was feted at the luncheon gathering for her role as Oklahoman of the Year 2009. Oklahoma Today magazine made the selection, and sponsored the day’s activities.

Garrett spoke at an afternoon symposium about her pride to have worked with Paul in development of Oklahoma’s early childhood education program, which has gained widespread bipartisan support among state business leaders and policymakers.

Paul credited former state Superintendent Leslie Fisher for seeking her recommendations in 1980 on components for an ideal program of improved “nursery school” education. She said it should serve all children starting at age 4, be voluntary and approached as an educational endeavor.

Today, Oklahoma’s program serves more children, percentage wise, than any American state. This benchmark is pointed to by program supporters as a distinction of quality for the Sooner State. Annual studies from Rutgers University put the state at the top in quality.

Garrett recently led a task force of chief state school officers in developing national standards for early childhood education. Those standards were drawn largely from her Oklahoma experience and her alliance with Dr. Paul. Garrett said she “would never have been in a position to lead the national discussion without the work Ramona has done.” 

Libby Doggett expressed gratitude to have been involved with Paul’s efforts. Doggett’s keynote address at the symposium was in large measure a testimonial to Paul’s effectiveness in policy development. With obvious affection, Doggett hailed “Ramona’s dedication to Oklahoma’s youngest learners. You have the nation’s leading program of early childhood education.”

Doggett said, “Kids who start behind generally stay behind for always.” She said the return on investment from early childhood education is “better than most or all public investments.” Dedication to “high quality voluntary pre-K education” is so strong, Doggett said, that funding around the nation “has doubled in last few years, even as the economy has been so challenged.”

At Thursday’s symposium, General Richard Burpee (USAF, ret.) declared support Oklahoma’s early childhood education programs. General Burpee and another Air Force retiree, General William P. “Billy” Bowden, are part of Mission: Readiness, a consortium of retired military officers endorsing early childhood education programs and other “smart investments in the next generation of American children.” The group was formed about two years ago but has stepped up activity recently.

In Washington, D.C., last month, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana joined U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other retired generals and admirals for “Mission: Readiness.” The group has found 75% of the nation’s young people from ages 17 to 24 are ineligible to serve in the military for one or more of these reasons: failure to graduate from high school, involvement in criminal activity or unfit for physical or mental reasons.

In an April 30 Washington Post “op-ed” piece, two members of Mission:Readiness (John M. Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton) laid out  military concerns, particularly on health and early childhood education.

Oklahoma’s program garners positive analysis in many quarters, although some critics contend the record in student achievement remains unclear.

The current program has classes no larger than 20 students, with one certified teacher and one assistant, keeping the teacher-student ratio at one to 10. In a leading “quality standards checklist,” Oklahoma meets nine of 10 benchmarks for areas like learning standards, in-service teacher training, class size, screening and support services, and other issues.

The pilot preschool program, established in 1980, grew slowly until 1990, when statewide funding was extended to four-year-olds in Head Start program. In 1998, Oklahoma was the second state to provide tax-financed voluntary access to preschool education. State spending per child enrolled in pre-school programs as of 2009 was approximately $4,094, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER,

In the 2008-09 school year, the institute estimated 4,100 children were served through collaboration programs. Private and taxpayer dollars have financed the pilot Early Childhood Program that began in the 2006-07 school year. The year-round birth to age 3 program was reaching about 510 three-year-olds in 2008-09, according to NIEER.

About 71% of Oklahoma’s four-year-old children are in the four-year-old program, the highest total in the nation. Total pre-K spending by the Oklahoma state government is $147,185,345, according to NIEER. Dr. Paul and her colleagues are praised for developing a “collaborative” model that brings together public school four-year-old programs with private sector day care, Head Starts, YMCAs, use of faith-based facilities, and other practices.

The state Department of Education, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, said preK enrollment was 37,378 youngsters as of October 1, 2009. For purposes of comparison, according to department spokeswoman Shelly Hickman, kindergarten enrollment was 51,128 on that date.

Fashioning a complete picture for Oklahoma government spending is somewhat challenging, as there are different “weights” assigned in the school funding formula for half-day versus full-day programs. Also driving spending data are such other factors as student demographics (low income, special education) and local ad valorem resources.

Augmenting the funding, Oklahoma’s private sector has devoted significant resources in support of early childhood education programs based in or around public schools.