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universal pre-k
(Morguefile.com)

Sen. Greg Treat doesn’t wake up in the morning and look for ways to upset interest groups with the legislation he proposes. But according to the former Tom Coburn staff member, he’s not afraid of it, either.

Treat (R-OKC) has filed two education-related bills this session that he knows will rankle certain people.

SB 1324 proposes a functional end to the “universality” of pre-kindergarten in Oklahoma and removes funding for such programs from the state aid formula.

SB 1325 deletes a state prohibition on the creation of charter schools serving deaf or blind populations.

“I wasn’t elected in my mind just to play the faith and go along,” Treat said of his controversial education bills. “I don’t intentionally try to provoke anger from people, but if we didn’t have disagreements, there would be no reason for a legislative body to represent their districts anyway.”

While Treat said his bill on universal pre-k is intended as a way “to spark a conversation where we use real numbers and not partial numbers” when discussing common education funding, powerful forces in the Oklahoma economy are less than pleased by it.

‘Very basic’ and ‘very critical’

“Essentially, we oppose that modification. Really and truly, it’s very basic. Making sure that children are prepared as early as possible for continued learning is critical,” said Teresa Rose, chairwoman of the Greater OKC Chamber of Commerce’s education and workforce development committee. “There’s so much research about brain development and how the brain develops and how early the brain develops that those early years really are very critical.”

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Rose, a former Oklahoma State Department of Education staffer and a former director with Chesapeake Energy, said she had been skeptical about pre-k in the past before studies, statistics and a personal anecdote convinced her of its importance.

“I was with some other people in a classroom,” Rose said, noting it was not in Oklahoma. “This little guy was in a small reading group, and they had a question about a cow. He had never seen it. He had no idea what it was, and when the teacher was trying to give him hints as to what it was to come up with ‘cow,’ one of the questions was, ‘Where does milk come from?’ And his answer was, ‘The grocery store.’”

Rose said that while the scene was simply a singular example, it represents how easily children can fall behind in the process of educational development.

“We need as much lead time as possible to get our young people prepared so that, when they get to kindergarten, they can learn language and other things,” she said. “Pre-k is a very important piece, and is something that Oklahoma is doing right. This is not a time for us to unravel the things we are doing right.”

Funding the icing before the cake?

Treat, however, said there’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma’s k-12 education-funding problems should require a conversation about where other education dollars are going.

“If you’re not funding the cake, why do you have icing for it?” he posited. “We’ve had pre-k in the state for quite some time, and our educational outcomes haven’t really changed that much. So I want to have a discussion.”

Beyond that discussion, Treat also wants to make a point.

“The second reason (for this bill) is, I think there has been a blatant misrepresentation of school funding,” Treat said. “I’m not going to sit here and argue with anyone that we adequately fund education and everything’s rosy, however, I’m not going to cede to the argument that we’ve had a 30-something-percent cut, as Dave Blatt and OPI state.”

In reality, Blatt’s Oklahoma Policy Institute has published figures showing about a 24 percent reduction in inflation-adjusted per-pupil appropriations for Oklahoma. But Treat’s not alone in arguing that the rhetoric around common education funding has been disingenuous. Leadership in both the House and the Senate — as well as the governor’s office — have expressed the same sentiment.

Meanwhile, Treat said his effort to allow charter schools to be created for deaf and/or blind populations has not yet caused the same rancorous reception it received when he had introduced it previously.

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While the Oklahoma School for the Deaf and the Oklahoma School for the Blind hold prominent legacies in the history of how disabled Americans have been educated, Treat said he has been concerned by recent educational outcomes, particularly with the School for the Deaf.

“I’m not opposed to leaving the School for the Deaf open if people want to send their children there, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to have the ability to have a competitive model,” Treat said, noting that the school is under the Oklahoma Department for Rehabilitation Services and not the OSDE. “You’ve got non-educators overseeing what is almost exclusively an education issue.”

Questions sent Monday to the administrator of the Oklahoma School for the Deaf had not been returned as of the publication of this story.

Treat reiterated that most Oklahomans with hearing impairment do not even attend the School for the Deaf, as many parents choose to keep their children in local school districts instead of having them bussed to Sulphur where they stay Monday through Thursday.

He said the state of Oklahoma should have a conversation about whether prohibiting the creation of charter schools for deaf or blind students — especially if it would mean access to such schools in different parts of the state — is good policy.

“I like to sit down with people who disagree with me,” Treat said. “I like to have these conversations. I’ve never kept it a secret from the School for the Deaf that I didn’t think they were the best model to teach these students.”

Both of Treat’s bills have been referred to the Senate Education Committee and may receive hearings there.


(Editor’s Note: For analysis of Oklahoma’s pre-k program effects, the following Georgetown University study is available for review. In a nutshell, the study found “… statistically significant positive effects for math, for boys, and for free-lunch-eligible students.”)

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