Early-childhood education supporters should support school choice

October 27, 2014

Patrick B. McGuigan

Dr. Ramona Paul was the driving force behind our state’s rapid ascent to national attention for having expansive pre-K education programs. Beloved by thousands who work in the preschool vineyards, she was a powerful influence on me, despite our disagreements about formal government programs for pre-K.

In statutory law, Paul’s legacy is reflected in our state’s embrace of formal early-childhood education. Our laws, at 10 O.S. § 640-640.3, establish the authority underlying the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR). OPSR's mission is to help fashion early childhood education focused on strengthening families and school readiness for all children. OPSR's vision, its leaders say, is to assure that “all Oklahoma children will be safe, healthy, eager to learn, and ready to succeed by the time they enter school.”

So, support for early-childhood education is a given, right?

Not necessarily, if and when the next contraction in government revenue comes. After all, there are some who believe “in a perfect world, a beautiful world, children would not start school until age 8.”

And, not if Oklahomans are ever forced to choose between formal early childhood education and other programs helpful to children and families.

As I have reported for OCPA’s Perspective and other publications, support for school choice, especially among Republicans, is overwhelming. As previously detailed, Oklahomans active in Republican primary and runoff elections are overwhelmingly supportive of choice.

A Tarrance-conducted poll this summer found a remarkable 75 percent of GOP voters want to give parents “the right to use the tax dollars associated with the education of their children to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.” Even in households that included a public school employee, support was 61 percent. And, support was overwhelming among supporters of the Republican hopefuls for superintendent of public instruction.

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of likely primary/run-off voters backed the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program. The purest choice —Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), proposed but not yet enacted in Oklahoma — garnered two-thirds support among those same voters.

Even the foregoing tells only part of the story.

If given an option (less politely, if forced to make a choice), Oklahomans prefer tax cuts and other steps making it easier for families to provide for their own needs over expanded early-childhood programs.

In 2011, SoonerPoll asked an important question, explicitly in the context of “thinking about early-childhood policies in Oklahoma.”

The query? “Do you think state government should focus more on creating and expanding programs for children from birth to age five, or making it easier and more affordable for one parent to stay at home with children from birth to age five?”

Only 26 percent chose early childhood programs; 57 percent stated their preference for policies that would empower parents. Among women the margin was 56 percent to 30 percent. And among women statewide with household incomes under $35,000 a year, parents “won” 57 to 29 in the survey.

Narrative for that same survey pointed out Oklahoma “a national leader in early childhood education. First, among all the states Oklahoma has the highest percentage of four-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs. Secondly, Oklahoma is one of the few states that offer a tax break for stay-at-home parents.”

Those words were preface to a choice: “Assuming there is a limited amount of money, which of the following do you think should take precedence: Increasing the amount of money spent on preschool programs for four-year-olds, or expanding the tax break for parents who stay at home with their four-year-olds?”

By 55 percent to 31 percent, Oklahomans wanted to expand the tax break. Among women with household incomes under $35,000 a year, it was 55 percent to 29 percent; among women in general it was slightly weaker, albeit still a majority of those surveyed: 51 percent to 35 percent.

This review of polling data and my own analysis does not lead me to advocate an end to early-childhood programs.

Rather, I encourage a look at the broader picture.

Perhaps early-childhood programs are for now a “given” in public policy. Even so, it is in the best interest of us all to find ways to make those programs effective (and with sustainable positive results).

At the same time, early-childhood advocates should support policies that assure parents who have the time, energy, and inclination to care for their own children are supported.

This should be a given, in policy and in politics: Kids and their parents deserve options – real options, not merely those approved by supporters of the status quo. If we are all in this together, let's act like it.

A certified public school teacher, guest blogger Patrick McGuigan served two years as curriculum director at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, where he is presently works part-time on remedial reading and writing with high school students. This post is adapted from McGuigan's September 18 speech to the board governing the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR), better known as the Smart Start Coalition.