Oklahoma's Pre-Kindergarten program now a model for nation

MAYES COUNTY, Okla. - It's a quiet morning in the cow pasture in rural Mayes County. Just the kind of morning rancher Joe Eddins has come to love.

"I'm enjoying my retirement," said Joe.

He enjoyed plenty of quiet days like these, until president Obama's State of the Union address.

"In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math," said Mr. Obama.

The president views Oklahoma's Pre-K education program as a potential model for the nation.

Rancher Joe, is the man who started it.

"I keep waiting for someone from the president's office to say he's got some airplane tickets for me to come up and visit, but I don't know that that's going to happen," said Joe.

Joe started the program in 1998 during his busier days when he served in the state legislature.

For the Democrat, establishing a progressive program in a conservative state wasn't easy.

Some say he snuck it into law.

And he admits at least a few lawmakers didn't know what they were voting on.

"That's not just this bill," said Joe laughing.

But even then, he never saw fame like this. Television host Rachel Maddow recently featured him on her show on MSNBC.

Joe says he won't let the fame go to his head.

"These cows are glad to see me too, so it's just another day for me I guess," he said,    

At Tulsa's Porter Early Childhood Development Center, it's just another day as well.

Thanks to the work Joe and others did 15 years ago, the school is now a small part of the state's Pre-K program, which is similar to kindergarten, just for four year olds.  

In most cases, it's a full day of school every day for an entire school year.

"There's been a big response from our families. And that's been a big success for Tulsa Public Schools and for Oklahoma," said Andy McKenzie, Tulsa Public Schools' Early Childhood assistant to the superintendent.

Darby Gleason is one of 3,000 Tulsa 4-year-olds enrolled in the program.

Even though it's not mandatory for Oklahoma children, Darby's mom didn't hesitate to enroll her.

"I'm really happy with the program," said Virginia Gleason. "I think that they do a lot of hands on stuff in the class. It's very science based and they do a lot of discovery through the day."

Critics say the program would be too expensive to take nationwide.

At least one study says it would cost nearly $100 billion over 10 years.

But Joe points to studies that show its benefits.

"When young children participate in developmentally appropriate activities they do better," Joe said. "They become better citizens."

As all of Joe's attention dies down, his time for reflection should be easier to come by.

Unless he's called back into duty.

"If the president calls me I'll be just delighted to go up and help him," said Joe.

President Obama's plan for a national program is still in the early stages of development, and the administration has not said how much it will cost.

Oklahoma's program costs roughly $120 million a year. Every school gets the same amount of funding for each Pre-K student as they do any other student.

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