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Susan Ochshorn Headshot

Go West, Bill de Blasio: Land of Inequality-Busting

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Just weeks after his landslide victory, Bill de Blasio presided over a children's summit in New York City. "Economic destiny is determined by education," he said. "That is true for us as a city, for us as a nation." So did the incoming mayor of the country's largest school district set the context, restating his plan to make universal preschool the foundation of his agenda to combat inequality, taxing the rich to pay for it.

A game-changing investment, indeed. But the lift is heavy, and aspersions will be cast. De Blasio's had his hands full with the city's financial elite, whose apocalyptic visions of ruin and flight are still floating behind closed doors. The Wall Street Journal has been on his case from the get-go, giving prime editorial real estate to management consultants who know zilch about early education or the voluminous evidence documenting its effectiveness.

Also worrisome are the machinations in Albany. Andrew Cuomo has reportedly dismissed a proposal by his predecessor, George Pataki, who signed off on universal pre-K in 1997, to reduce personal income taxes -- millionaires included -- opting instead for a reduction of property taxes. But the climate upstate is less than salubrious for the likes of a downstate progressive. No sooner had Cuomo's Education Commission nudged universal preschool onto his agenda earlier this year, than he was complaining about the expense of rolling it out.

New York's governor will have some thorns in his side. "There's an outstanding IOU for Cuomo to make good on the $4 billion for the state's school children," Michael Rebell reminded us, with nearly $2 billion owed to New York City. Executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, co-author of Making Universal Pre-K Truly Universal in New York State and an experienced litigator, he's been fighting for restitution for years. And a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed New Yorkers on board, almost 2 to 1, with de Blasio's plan to tax those making more than $500,000.

But de Blasio needs more ammunition. The incoming mayor should cast his eyes beyond the Hudson. While he boasted about a recent trip to Cincinnati, to check out their own civic experiment -- a gaggle of model community schools -- he made no mention of Tulsa, capital of early childhood innovation.

Oklahoma, land of Annie Oakley, has been a preschool pioneer, introducing an Early Childhood Four-Year-old Program way back in 1980, three years before the landmark report, A Nation at Risk, was published. Their road was bumpy, but they persevered, becoming the second state in the nation to offer free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998 -- leaving New York in the dust. Enrollment in the program has steadily increased over the years, reaching 99 percent of school districts, and serving about three-quarters of the state's 4-year-olds. Although Oklahoma doesn't provide dedicated funding for 3-year-olds, whom they serve in lesser numbers, they've been working on that cohort, blending Title 1, Head Start, special education, and other sources. And, building on a five-year Pilot Early Childhood Program, launched in 2006, the state has contracted with the Community Action Project in Tulsa to boost access.

The results -- in a deep, red state with shallow pockets -- have been striking. And nowhere is this more evident than in Tulsa, the largest school district in the state. Make no mistake: This is one high-quality preschool program. B.A. degrees are required, as is early childhood certification, and educators are paid on par with their K-12 colleagues.

No surprise, William T. Gormley, co-director of Georgetown's Center for Research on Children, found significant improvements in school readiness. Kindergarten students who had the benefits of the city's pre-K program were nine months ahead of their peers in reading, seven months in writing, and five months in math. Gains were especially substantial for English-language learners, whose parents spoke Spanish at home, and who scored 12 months better than their control group in reading, four months better in writing, and 10 in math. Black and Native American children showed considerable progress as well. Also noteworthy, in the quest for "truly universal": While kids with fewer advantages reaped the greatest benefits, middle-class children did very nicely, thank you.

While he's in Tulsa, de Blasio might want to stop in and chat with philanthropist George Kaiser, who has made early education his mission. "Equal opportunity is really the social contract of American life," he remarked in a speech in Chicago some years ago. "Yet, as Warren Buffett has observed, 'all men are created equal and that lasts for fifteen minutes.'" Sounds like the new mayor and the billionaire have common ground. Maybe George can provide Bill with some grist for the corporate titans and politicos at home, who would just as soon see his lovely vision evaporate.