Tulsa billionaire backs investment in pre-K

This is Part Two of a feature on pre-K education; to read Part One click here.

(CBS News) TULSA, Okla. -- George Kaiser amassed a fortune in oil and banking, and he rarely grants interviews. But he agreed to talk to CBS News about his passion for early childhood education.

After all, his foundation spends $20 million a year on pre-K programs directed at low income families in Oklahoma.

Kaiser says his commitment derives partly from a sense of guilt.

"I realized that I got where I got, as most of us did, based on dumb luck," said Kaiser, 70, who took over his family's oil business 44 years ago. "Warren Buffett puts it the best when he said that some of us win the ovarian lottery, and some of us do not.

"So, I think it's a moral obligation for all of us -- it's incumbent on all of us to try and level the playing field to some degree for those who didn't have the advantages we secured."

The George Kaiser Family Foundation helps pay for 530 newborns-to-four-years-olds to attend year-round his signature program: Educare, available at three locations in Tulsa. Another 170 kids attend the foundation-funded Educare in Oklahoma City.

Classrooms are state of the art. Teachers have college degrees and training in early childhood development.

The actual cost of Educare is $24,000 a year per child, but it's free for families that get in.

"It is very expensive to provide 50-week-a-year, eight-hour-a-day education for infants and toddlers," Kaiser said. "It is less expensive than not doing it, but it's expensive to do it.

"The cost in the end is negative because the benefits to society from providing early childhood education to infants and toddlers is repaid with a return in the form of reduced correctional system costs, reduced special education, and a better educated work force, and greater financial and educational obtainment by the kids that have gone in the program."

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: To watch an expanded interview with George Kaiser click on the video player below.

In a public-private partnership with the Oklahoma State Department of Education and Tulsa Public Schools, Kaiser's foundation underwrites Educare and the cost of 13 pre-K schools run by the Community Action Project, which serves 2,100 children from low-income families. The schools, like the Educare centers, also offer parenting and career advancement classes for adults.

"Clearly, I'm disturbed by inequality, and inequality in American society is growing," Kaiser said. "I wouldn't want to destroy equality by knocking down the haves. I would rather do it by bringing up the have-nots."

  • Phil Hirschkorn

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