The Billionaire Behind Oklahoma's Early Childhood Program

George B. Kaiser describes himself as a "robber baron from red state America." The Tulsa billionaire and philanthropist amassed a fortune of more than $10 billion in oil, banking, and investments. He also describes himself as a "latter-day convert" to the critical importance of early childhood education — and what a conversion it has been!

Since 2005, Kaiser has deployed the assets of his George Kaiser Family Foundation to construct not one, but three, state-of-the-art early childhood education centers, and to sponsor undergraduate and graduate degree programs in early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma and Tulsa Community College. He also pumped millions in funding into the Oklahoma Early Childhood Program, serving 2,000 kids in early childhood centers across the state. All this in conservative Oklahoma!

Not bad for a self-described "robber baron."

Oklahoma's early childhood program is more than a decade old and enrolls more than 70 percent of the state's 4-year-olds in preschool. In addition, preschool teachers must have a bachelor's degree — a requirement many other states do not have — and there must be a teacher for every 10 students.

The state's pre-K program has gotten a deluge of attention in the past year as President Obama and other political leaders have championed universal pre-K as one way to create a more equitable America. 

Kaiser traces his passion for early childhood education to his belief in equality of opportunity, as well as to the finding that although most brain development occurs by age 3, only a small proportion of education dollars are spent on that population. Kaiser studied early childhood programs to identify the best practices of successful programs and incorporated them into Educare, the early childhood centers his foundation constructed in Tulsa.

Educare's facilities rival those of posh private schools, according to a 2011 report by Forbes magazine. The schools, located in some of Tulsa's poorest neighborhoods, contain classrooms filled with quality educational toys, games, and books. The centers also offer job training, medical care, and cooking classes for the kids' families. The Kaiser foundation spent more than $20 million to finance the construction of Tulsa's Educare centers and provides additional funds to help cover annual costs.

Kaiser also wants to ensure the kids who attend Educare and other early childhood centers are taught by high-quality teachers. For that reason, the Kaiser Foundation donates more than $1 million a year to Tulsa Community College and the University of Oklahoma to fund programs to train early childhood specialists. Teachers who work in Oklahoma four years after graduation get their tuition reimbursed in full.

Kaiser's efforts to break the cycle of poverty in his state doesn't stop at Educare, however, or even with early childhood education in general. He also is turning his attention to such issues as K-12 education and health care. In elementary and secondary education, Kaiser has partnered with the Gates Foundation to promote greater accountability in schools. The Kaiser Foundation also has invested $1 million per year to bring young Teach For America graduates to the Tulsa public schools. To house these new teachers, Kaiser even invested funds to transform Tulsa's warehouse district into the kind of hip loft apartments that young urban professionals love.

But Kaiser is especially concerned with the issue of health care in reducing poverty. He was shocked to learn of a 14-year gap in life expectancy between Tulsa's wealthiest and poorest ZIP codes. One of the biggest problems is the lack of physicians in poor neighborhoods. As he told Forbes, "We have health care rationing now, rationed to those rich enough to pay for it."

To attract more doctors to the areas that need them most, Kaiser Foundation donated $62 million to the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa to establish the School of Community Medicine, where students set up clinics in schools and public housing projects. Like the program for early childhood teachers, doctors can get tuition reimbursements after working five years in the community.

Kaiser has designated foundation funds for evaluation activities to assess the effectiveness of programs and initiatives funded so far, and will base future giving on how well those programs perform. One thing seems certain, though: Kaiser and his foundation are far from finished in their effort to ensure the promise of equal opportunity extends to all Oklahomans, regardless of the circumstances at birth!