SAND SPRINGS, Oklahoma - In addition to education foundations, Oklahoma is a national leader in early childhood education. Advocates say everyone deserves a fair chance to achieve their dreams and it should start well before the first day of traditional school.

In a state that consistently brings up the national rear in adequately funding the education of its young people, our 4 year olds are extremely lucky to be Oklahoma 4 year olds.

“You won't find a child here that doesn't feel success, they love it, they're here learning and we can measure that,” says Sand Springs Superintendent Sherry Durkee.

Sand Springs children are among the more than 40,000 Oklahoma 4 year olds taking advantage of a year of free, high-quality, pre-kindergarten, taught by certified teachers. Seventy-three percent of the state's 4 year olds are in 99 percent of the state's school districts.

What looks like child's play is so much more. Their vocabulary is expanding; their listening skills growing. They are learning direction, interaction and self-control skills. They will not just enter kindergarten better prepared, but an established body of research shows they will enter adulthood, years from now, better positioned to stay out of prison, earn higher salaries and enjoy a greater quality of life.

Laurie Painter leads this class.

“Whenever you see the light bulb finally go off they just get so excited and it's amazing to witness,” says Painter.

And that excitement is not just a flickering light bulb moment, but can be measured initially on third grade assessment tests.

“And you see a marked difference between the performance of kids that don't access early childhood and the kids that do,” says Durkee.

Steven Dow is the director of Tulsa's Community Action Project, one of Oklahoma's largest anti-poverty agencies, and a partner with the Tulsa, Union and Sand Springs school districts in providing enhanced birth-to-four-year old education that includes enrichment and parenting training for families

“Nationally, research tells us how impactful intervening early is and how effective early childhood education can be,” says Dow. “If we get the kids off to a right start, we'll dramatically shift the odds in their favor so that when they grow up and want to have children of their own, their children are not born into a low income household.”

Since it was first offered in 1998, Oklahoma has become a national trendsetter in early childhood education, the second state to offer, and generously fund, universal four-year-old classes, and still ranked among the top five states nationally for access to them.

“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 at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.  We know this works,” says Dow.

Three years ago, when President Obama pitched Congress for a national early childhood program to mimic Oklahoma's, Norman's Susan Bumgarner was sitting in the First Lady's box. She was there to represent Oklahoma's commitment to its youngest children. Bumgarner's begun her 24th year working with them at Oklahoma City's Wilson Arts Integration Elementary School.

“It's easier for them to learn at this age the things that, you know, the behavior and the beginning academic skills, it's easier for them to learn now and i want that for them, they deserve it,” says Bumgarner.

Still, early childhood classes are not immune to the state's crippling budget cuts.

And that remains a lingering worry for those who've nursed their success.

“One cannot till the soil and plant the seeds and do the initial watering and then walk away and expect that we're going to harvest a flourishing crop,” says Dow.