Lessons in inclusive, universal pre-K from Tulsa

How can more established models elsewhere illuminate the way forward for our city?

Chalkbeat Philadelphia is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This story was written for Nextcity.org as part of a reporting collaboration funded by Resolve Philadelphia. The Notebook will be publishing additional stories looking at our pre-k program early in 2019.

To outsiders, Oklahoma may seem like an odd place to look for a shining example of public education policy. This deep-red state has seen numerous cuts to public education funding over the last 30 years, stagnant teacher salaries over the last decade, and most recently, a heated election cycle dominated by the aftermath of a statewide teacher strike.

But Oklahoma also happens to lead the country in one particular public-education initiative: state-funded universal pre-kindergarten.

Since the program was established in 1998, education researchers have been intrigued. And as one of the earliest and most comprehensive sites for longitudinal data on the effects of pre-K, policymakers across the country have taken notice of Oklahoma’s model.

Blue, or more liberal, cities and states, where there is a fundamental belief in the value of state-funded services, have seen a surge in support for public money going toward expanded pre-K programs.

Washington, D.C., leads in per-pupil funding and enrollment rates, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious program, backed by a $300 million investment from the state, has made the biggest splash. But other cities, such as Chicago and Boston, struggle to ramp up and secure consistent funding.

For Philadelphia, America’s most economically disadvantaged big city, the long-term effects of expanded pre-K are too clear to ignore. Without any significant state support, the city’s plan for 3- and 4-year-olds has been bankrolled by Mayor Kenney’s soda and sugary-beverage tax. As Philly refines its approach and ramps up its capacity, how can more established models illuminate the way forward?

In Tulsa, ‘setting our kids up for success’

Oklahoma, which has one of the most prominent models of successful public pre-K expansion, is also one of the nation’s most tax-allergic political landscapes. Voters there passed a referendum in 1992 barring the government from raising any taxes without the support of both the governor and 75 percent of the state legislature, making it nearly impossible. With no new taxes and existing sources of revenue cut back over subsequent decades, the allocation of part of the state’s education budget to establishing and expanding a publicly funded universal pre-K program seems like a miracle.

In fact, it all started when a state senator slipped pre-K funding into a bill that addressed a different issue. Decades later, as the rest of the country debates the merits of public pre-K, advocates often quote studies based on the Tulsa Public School District, where 68 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in one of the city’s high-quality pre-K classrooms, free of charge.

And the results are compelling.

Children who attended pre-K showed significant increases in kindergarten readiness. The gains were most significant for economically disadvantaged children or those from marginalized communities. Evidence suggests that pre-K is a promising solution to the growing achievement gap between affluent and economically disadvantaged students — a gap that alarms experts and policymakers alike.

The origins of this persistent gap are felt as early as kindergarten. According to one study, less than 50 percent of children experiencing economic hardship (defined as coming from households with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level) enter kindergarten with adequate “kindergarten readiness.” At least 75 percent of children from more affluent households (185 percent of the poverty level or more) are kindergarten-ready.

Without state-funded pre-K, most existing programs are inaccessible to low-income parents. Advocates have pointed to universally accessible, high-quality pre-K as a proven way to stop or delay the achievement gap from the outset.

What kindergarten readiness looks like

For Ronda Kesler, it is not just academic research that proves the value of pre-K. She sees the effects every day. Kesler is the principal of Kendall-Whittier Elementary School in Tulsa, one of the public elementary schools in the city with multiple pre-K classrooms, expanding the more traditional “K through 6” school to “pre-K through 6.”

Kesler describes the difference in readiness levels between children who had attended pre-K and those who hadn’t as “tremendous.” Particularly for the low-income population her school serves — 90-95 percent of students at Kendall-Whittier qualify for Title I funding every year — pre-K makes an enormous difference in setting up students for future success.

“For kiddos who do not go to pre-K, if they don’t have the opportunity to have a home environment where the parents have the ability or the time to sit down and read, to work on numbers and letters, or if they’re an only child and they are not used to coming and being with 20 other kids, then kindergarten is their first entry point and they have many more barriers to overcome,” says Kesler. “If they’ve gone to pre-K, they’ve been exposed to what it is to do school and everything that goes with that. Those kids transition so much more easily and come in at higher levels.”

Kesler isn’t the only educator who sees this marked difference.

Kelly Kane, the executive director of early childhood education at Tulsa Public Schools, says that in recent focus groups with pre-K and kindergarten teachers throughout the district, she received overwhelming feedback that children who had attended pre-K were much better prepared for kindergarten. Teachers say that one of the most profound differences was the children’s social-emotional development, or “the social skills around how to be in school, how to follow directions, how to share with friends, things like that,” says Kane. Teaching these skills often takes up much of the first few months of kindergarten.

These skills, Kesler agrees, are in some ways even “more important in our pre-K space even than academics in setting our kids up for success.” With that out of the way when most of the kids have already been to pre-K, kindergarten teachers can more effectively and efficiently get to the academic pieces of kindergarten like writing, counting, or practicing more precise motor skills.

Pre-K in elementary schools

Tulsa’s universal pre-K program is implemented within the existing public school district system (in addition to within charter schools and Head Start centers), rather than using a “mixed-delivery model” that cities such as Philadelphia and New York choose to follow, in which a variety of programs, providers and facilities are paid for with a mix of public and private funds. Although certain constraints come with a public school model — for example, the challenge of expanding into more classrooms within existing school buildings — one of the upsides is environmental continuity for both children and parents from pre-K through the rest of elementary school.

Jessica Stewart, a pre-K teacher at Kendall-Whittier, says that initially she was surprised how some students who had been to a pre-K program elsewhere before coming to the school for kindergarten ended up experiencing some similar social and attachment issues as children who had never been to pre-K. But she eventually came to realize that after a year or more in the same environment, “to those kids, those teachers, that building, that is school. That’s what they mean by ‘I am going to school.’ But then they get taken to a new building with new kids and new teachers. Their entire understanding of what is school has been changed.”

Stewart noted that various pre-K programs have strong partnerships that try to minimize this transition for students, “but it is still hard for them at the beginning.”

Another benefit of housing pre-K within a larger elementary school is that staff can observe and structure long-term education plans. Kesler says she and her teaching staff see the effects of pre-K on students at least through 3rd grade.

Here is where some research varies. Although the immediate impact of pre-K on kindergarten readiness is widely accepted, how long those gains are sustained has been the source of some debate. Most of the research points to long-term gains: some have focused on the original Tulsa pre-K cohorts through middle school, while other studies that are longer-term, but also track a small group of students, have shown that those who attend pre-K programs have lower incarceration rates and end up earning higher wages than their peers who did not attend pre-K.

A few more recent studies have countered those findings, indicating that the gains from pre-K in certain states did not persist into the middle-school years, leading many to question how the quality of a pre-K program could affect the longevity of achievement gains.

Although Kesler and her staff can confidently say that they see the effects of pre-K on older students, she notes that pre-K is not a silver bullet for the country’s education system. As a child gets older, Kesler says, other factors play an increasing role in their success.

“If there is high absenteeism, it’s usually a family issue. If there is trauma in the home, divorce happens, or loss of job, or a loss of a family member or whatever, those things happen and cause trauma and can cause tremendous changes. Those all affect a child in their development. There are just a lot of factors,” says Kesler. “It’s hard to rule out and say, oh, well, pre-K doesn’t count as much anymore, so is it really valid? Yes, it is incredibly valid. There are just other life factors that play in as they get older.”

Find the right model, then customize

To ensure that the gains persist later in a child’s educational experience, Kane’s team is working on improving what she calls “a seamless continuum from pre-K through 3rd grade.” This envisions what learning could look like planned across a longer span of time so that gains in early childhood education can be more effectively sustained for all students, hopefully further narrowing the achievement gap and minimizing costlier and more time-intensive interventions down the line that would be needed if students fall farther behind as they age.

But thinking about how to better streamline continuity of instruction for students from pre-K through elementary school is a level of improvement that can only happen after 20 years of tweaking implementation. Cities and states who are new to the public pre-K idea, but convinced of its merits, are trying to answer much more fundamental questions, such as: how do we get expanded pre-K programs off the ground, expand capacity, and ensure quality, all within an environment where public education funding is scarce?

Looking at Tulsa’s experience can convince an observer of the value of publicly funded pre-K. But for cities looking for replicable models to inform their own pre-K funding and expansion, it perhaps proves less useful.

For Philadelphia, the answer had to be local. Kenney ran in 2015 on a proposal to expand publicly funded pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds and won the election. Then came a months-long budget impasse between Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and its Republican legislature, one of many over the next few years, as well as a recurring debate over adequate education funding from Harrisburg. Philadelphia could not depend on the type of financial support from its state capital that Tulsa has benefited from since 1998. If it wasn’t going to come from the state, it had to come from the city.

Additionally, a system run directly by the Philadelphia School District wasn’t going to work. The District did not have the capacity necessary to accommodate an influx of potentially more than 42,000 students. There is also the matter of scale: The Philadelphia School District is roughly five times the size of Tulsa’s. In fact, there are more 3- and 4-year-olds living in Philadelphia than the total number of students enrolled in Tulsa’s public schools.

In New York City, a state-funded windfall brings rapid expansion

For a city-driven model that used a wide range of early childhood education centers — public school, community, and family providers — Philadelphia only needs to look about 100 miles to the north.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on universal pre-K about two years earlier than Kenney. By far the most progressive major candidate in the race, de Blasio proposed a tax increase on all New York residents making over $500,000 per year to pay for universal pre-K expansion throughout the five boroughs. It was a popular pillar of his campaign.

After strong and immediate pressure from de Blasio, political calculations in Albany led to a surprising turn of events: Cuomo found $340 million in the budget to give to the mayor to run the program for five years. (The following fall would be an election year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and he shied away from a fight over an income-tax increase.)

At the time, New York City had about 20,000 publicly funded pre-K spots. In order to be eligible for one, families had to meet certain income requirements, ensuring that the seats were reserved for children of low-income parents. Not only did de Blasio firmly believe that high-quality pre-K should be free for working New Yorkers, he also took the more controversial position that pre-K should be open to every student who was 4 years old by Sept. 1, regardless of their family’s income level.

That meant that parents who already sent their children to private pre-K programs would also benefit on the taxpayers’ dime. De Blasio argued that making the program universal would help it gather significant and widespread voter support, making it more sustainable. Also, children benefit from learning in classrooms that have cultural, racial, and socioeconomic diversity. Committed to a truly universal pre-K and aptly titled “Pre-K for All,” New York City launched the program in a matter of months.

The growth was extraordinary. Within three years, the number of fully funded pre-K spots swelled from 20,000 to 70,000. Although improvements are still necessary — some programs have waiting lists and some families are matched with programs that are too far away — Pre-K for All is viewed, by almost all measures, as de Blasio’s most impressive policy success. He recently announced an expansion of the program to include all of New York City’s 3-year-olds.

Philadelphia flies solo, buoyed by a sugary tax

Philadelphia’s own program began a few years after New York’s, but from the outset, it had conceived of including both 3- and 4-year-olds. The tricky part was that Kenney would have to find a way to pay for it.

Each city governs under a different set of constraints, represents a different constituency, and has to navigate unique local politics. At the end of 2015, the city put together the Philadelphia Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten. The group’s mission was to look at all the models and options that had been tried, examine the child-care landscape in the city, assess the needs of Philadelphia families and communities, and eventually issue recommendations for what Philly’s program should look like.

Meanwhile, people inside the new Kenney administration explored how to pay for it. Instead of an income tax, as de Blasio had initially proposed, Kenney chose another tactic: He proposed the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, a tax on soda and other sweetened beverages explicitly with the purpose of funding universal pre-K.

After heated debate, fierce negotiating and lobbying City Council, Philadelphia passed the tax about six months after Kenney took office. It was projected to bring in $91 million, most of which would go toward education — expanded pre-K as well as community schools and other smaller initiatives. Immediately, soda companies sued, beginning a litigation process that would take two years before finally being decided by the state Supreme Court.

But in the middle of 2016, things looked promising. City Council had passed the soda tax and the Philadelphia Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten had published its final recommendations report. The commission looked at numerous examples across the country, cherry-picking strategies that might work in Philadelphia. Throughout the report, you can see fingerprints of lessons learned from other cities.

Statistics from the studies done in Oklahoma (and others) that show the efficacy of pre-K in closing the achievement gap and potential impact on high-risk students serve as some of the report’s most convincing justifications. The choice to recommend a “mixed-delivery model” — that is, using, improving, and expanding the existing network of providers — bears resemblance to New York’s model. And the idea to allow providers to layer funding streams (such as the state child-care subsidy and Philadelphia Pre-K funding) for children who qualify came from Washington, D.C.’s 10-year old universal pre-K system, which is not a mixed-delivery model, but which has one of the country’s highest participation rates.

All three of these models are open to all families, regardless of income level, as is Philadelphia’s. But, as with many things in the report, Philadelphia made it their own. Any child who is 3 or 4 years old by Sept. 1 and lives in Philadelphia is eligible for PHL Pre-K. But the first few rounds of providers were approved based on their location and communities that they served, with priority given to facilities in disadvantaged neighborhoods or in “pre-K deserts.”

The result is that 75 percent of families now occupying Philadelphia Pre-K spots earn 200 percent or less of the federal poverty limit (about $50,000 for a family of four). As the program expands and more seats become available, the hope is to eventually serve all of Philadelphia’s 3- and 4-year-olds. But the way the expansion is being implemented, students with the highest risk and who would benefit the most are being served, even as the program remains inclusionary.

The commission report reflected not only policy research, but also conversations with providers who already operated child-care centers as well as parents and other community stakeholders. Although the primary benefit of pre-K is the education of children, universal pre-K provides other secondary social benefits. Most obviously, it allows parents to work without worrying about how they will pay for child care. But an increase in child-care centers also leads to the expansion of a skilled and accredited workforce. And in places where mixed-delivery models support early childhood education, the effort also supports small business owners within a framework of quality control.

The diverse benefits that come with pre-K expansion were reflected in the commission’s report, and most of the recommendations have been adopted, at least in part. However, every choice has its drawbacks. With Philadelphia, the rollout has been slower than many would like, specifically because of the way the system was designed.

Although the commission’s report recommended a variety of revenue streams that could go to fund the program, the administration chose to rally behind the soda tax as the chief source of revenue. The litigation that followed­ — predictable for anyone who remembers Big Soda’s takedown of Michael Bloomberg’s failed and equally drawn-out attempt at a soda tax when he served as New York’s mayor — delayed Kenney’s relatively modest expansion plans.

Additionally, linking public-service funding to a constituent behavior (particularly when a benefit of the tax is to disincentivize that behavior), runs the risk of your funding waxing and waning with unpredictable consumer habits. In Philadelphia, the first year of the tax saw $78.8 million in new revenue, $13 million below expected numbers. Subsequent projected revenues have been lowered by about 15 percent. While the city had originally planned to open 6,500 new pre-K seats by fiscal year 2023, that projection was decreased by 1,000.

Nevertheless, 5,500 new publicly funded pre-K spots means 5,500 more children who are kindergarten-ready and 5,500 parents who can work instead of having to stay home or find alternative child-care because they can’t afford pre-K.

Like New York and Tulsa, Philadelphia will make adjustments and consider improvements for years to come. Yet collectively, U.S. cities and states are increasingly rallying behind universal pre-K, learning from each other while customizing their programs to fit their unique needs.

In some ways, communities across the country — red and blue, urban and rural — are following a lesson straight out of a pre-K classroom: Be true to yourself, but be sure you help others as well. Together, you’ll grow.

The Notebook is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at BrokeInPhilly.org and follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.