By Claudia Rowe

In one of the most fiscally conservative states in the country, a place where politicians cry "socialism!" at the mere mention of government in family life, lawmakers have for 16 years supported an expensive social program aimed at ensuring that every 4-year-old learns the alphabet.

Oklahoma's embrace of state-funded preschool _ taught by teachers trained in early education, and open to all _ has long attracted national attention. Georgetown University researchers make regular visits. The celebrated radio show "This American Life" produced a segment on it. Even the New York City Council came calling.

Thirteen years of data on 3,000 Tulsa children show that a year of preschool creates profound differences in their ability to hit the ground running by kindergarten, with a nine-month jump-start in literacy skills and four months' boost in math.

That may have been a pleasant surprise for Republican legislators who, believing they were closing a loophole, voted for a bill that had preschool funding tucked unobtrusively into a little-examined paragraph. Little did they anticipate the effect.

Parents flooded the program. It was high-quality and free. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, began to report dramatic differences between kids who came to them from pre-K programs and those without the year of classroom warm-up.

But the holy grail of early education _ lifetime outcomes _is what matters most. And by that measure, despite a decade and a half of universal free preschool, Oklahoma's ranking is hardly stellar. Fourth- and eighth-graders perform below national averages in reading and math. Special education rates are rising. Even in third grade, children struggle.

"Why aren't they passing the third-grade reading tests? That's the gorilla in the room," said Lisa Williams, who teaches 4-year-olds at Kendall-Whittier Elementary in Tulsa, and is well aware that legislators have begun to question the value of state-funded pre-K.

Oklahoma earmarks $143 million a year for early education. But that hardly counteracts surging poverty, an increase in students who need to learn English, or the state's comparatively meager spending on schools overall, which languishes at 48th in the nation.

"We were really lucky that this program got passed when it did _ before the recession and under a different governor," said Andy McKenzie, director of Early Childhood Services for the Tulsa School District. "Because, honestly, I don't think we'd be able to get it through today."

Yet parents, heartened by the effects of pre-K _ not to mention the pressure off their wallets _ wouldn't hear of doing away with it. In Tulsa, most kids get their first taste of school through a pre-K classroom like Williams', which costs the school district $5,000 per child. About 75 percent of the city's 4-year-olds sign up.

The poorest, however, are eligible for one of the best-regarded Head Start programs in the nation, part of a network of community agencies providing pre-K.

Both pathways are funded by the state, but they offer distinctly different approaches and different outcomes, too.

Each morning outside Williams' classroom, 40 children, all in uniform, line up against a bank of steel lockers where they will struggle to stash their backpacks before sitting down for exercises in letter recognition. Kendall-Whittier Elementary has more than 950 children and houses its youngest in their own wing.

"I wish we didn't have to do everything this way, walking in a line to go everywhere. But we don't have a choice," said Grayce McCoy, who teaches those students when they move on to kindergarten. "We have to walk in a line because there are 1,000 of us."

Trying to boost children's literacy and math skills, pre-K teachers begin their day by leading the group through an alphabet song, linking each letter with its sign-language symbol to make the abstract concepts concrete. Afterward, children are released one by one to assigned tables where, with the help of two aides, they leaf through picture books.

In stark contrast, across town at the McClure Early Childhood Development Center, which is a Head Start site, 20 youngsters have arranged themselves around a classroom rug as teacher Lauren Falzone reads the morning's story, "David Goes to School."

One boy continually spins round on his knees. Falzone _ observed by an instructional coach _ keeps talking, asking the children what they understand about each picture in the book.

"What's his face look like?" she says, pointing to a picture of David. "Sad," says a girl named Arianna.

"Why do you think he's sad?"

"Because he wants to go outside!" Arianna squeals.

The students' names are everywhere _ on the walls, their cubbies, the story-circle rug and a stand of toothbrushes lined up for use after snack. Later, each child chooses an activity for imaginative play. One girl worked in a make-believe kitchen near an easel posted with the Question of the Day: "Have you ever been scared?"

Focused largely on helping kids with social interaction and emotions, McClure's pre-K program is one of 13 run by Community Action Project (CAP) of Tulsa. Each costs about $15,000 per child, uses a Head Start model (with federal Head Start money on top of the state funding) and is open only to children living below the poverty line.

Blending children from Head Start with those who come to kindergarten via the Tulsa Public Schools _ where teachers spend almost twice as much time on letter sounds and half as much on fantasy play _ presents challenges. "There's a real tension that exists in trying to make the transition seamless," said Steven Dow, executive director of CAP, who has become something of a national leader on early education.

Accustomed to intimate classrooms that welcome, even solicit, parent volunteers, Head Start kids often struggle to negotiate the vastly different experience of being dropped off in a circular driveway and herded into a traditional public school.

"We teach the state standard, so there's a little more meat, academically," said Williams, the pre-K teacher at Kendall-Whittier Elementary. "At CAP, yes, they know their letters, but not necessarily how to write their names."

Georgetown University researcher William Gormley has spent a decade measuring the outcome of each approach, and finds that children who went through the public-school program do better in early literacy over their Head Start-schooled classmates. (In math, both rate about the same.)

But both groups soar ahead of kids who've had no preschool at all.

"We do not normally think of a relatively poor, relatively conservative state as leading the nation in an important social policy realm," Gormley wrote in "Small Miracles," one of his many papers on Tulsa.

"When Appalachian State beats the University of Michigan, that is news. When Tulsa outshines the rest of the nation in early childhood education, that is also news."

Gormley is convinced that the city's 16-year experiment proves that high-quality preschool_of either stripe_can measurably improve readiness for kindergarten.

But nagging questions remain, chief among them why much of the pre-K gain appears to fade over time. This fall, Gormley began a study of Tulsa's eighth-graders to find out more, though he believes the demographic shifts swamping Oklahoma are a major factor.

And, he adds, preschool itself is merely one step in a much longer ladder.

"For a strong pre-K program to have enduring benefits, teachers need to make some adjustments," Gormley said. If they continue to teach the same old stuff in the same old way, then the short-term gains are very likely to evaporate."

To wit: at Memorial Junior High, where many eighth-graders have gone through state-funded preschool, overall student outcomes ranked an "F" on the most recent state report card. Discipline is more of a problem than ever.

"Do I think pre-K is important? You bet," said Ginger Bunnell, the principal. "But not because it's going to make us all Einsteins. Are our kids driving off in cars that are not theirs? Yes. Do we have more of this than we used to 12 years ago? Yes. A smattering of 4-year-olds going to an early-education program is not going to set the world on fire."

(c)2014 The Seattle Times