Guest Post (Paul Shinn): How we can move from good child care to quality early learning

Paul Shinn is public policy analyst for Community Action Project of Tulsa County, which offers early learning and other programs for low-income children and families across Tulsa.  This post initially appeared on CAP’s Tulsa Initiative blog.

At Community Action Project (CAP), we provide direct services to Tulsa’s low-income families through high-quality early learning programs and programs that provide families with career, health, and financial supports. Through this work we’ve increasingly appreciated that public benefit programs are an essential support for Oklahoma’s low-income families. As a result, CAP has launched Better Benefits for Oklahoma Families, a series of assessments of Oklahoma public benefit programs.

Our first issue, released in November, looks at the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). CCDF  is a federal-state program to provide child care subsidies to low-income families with parents who work or are in school. CCDF gives families vouchers to pay for some or all of the child care for children up to age 13. Many families pay some of the cost of care as a co-pay that depends on their income and the number of children in care. In Oklahoma, CCDF is run by the Department of Human Services (OKDHS) and is known as child care subsidy.

There’s good news about CCDF in Oklahoma but bad news as well. Considering all aspects of program design, Oklahoma operates one of the three best child care subsidy programs in the nation. Compared to most states, Oklahoma pays a higher premium to higher quality child care providers and has a high maximum income level to qualify for benefits. We also don’t have a waiting list, unlike over 30 states. However, we fall short by requiring families at the poverty level to pay high co-pays and by limiting child care for parents who are searching for work. Fortunately, Oklahoma did not implement an ill-advised OKDHS recommendation to increase family co-pays and reduce family eligibility.

While Oklahoma’s CCDF system is among the more effective in the nation, service to families could be  improved with minor changes. To that end, Better Benefits for Oklahoma Families recommends that OKDHS:

  • increase job search eligibility provisions so families can keep their children with the same provider as their job circumstances change;
  • reduce economic and bureaucratic burdens on families by lowering co-payments for families at poverty level and by reducing requirements to report changes in income and work hours and restrictions on the hours that families can use their subsidies;
  • tie family co-payments to the quality level of care so families have a financial incentive to seek out the best possible care;
  • reduce barriers to blending with other federal and state funds for early education in order so that our high quality programs like Head Start and prekindergarten can serve more children for more hours and more of the year.

Beyond these simple and achievable improvements, Oklahoma also needs to be more aggressive in converting its CCDF program into one that drives quality early learning across the state.  Our unsuccessful Early Learning Challenge grant application was faulted for not having clear priorities, for not having a clear plan to change the path for high-needs children, and for not laying out a clear path to school readiness. Fortunately, an enhanced CCDF program can be the first step to addressing these weaknesses. Doing so will require time and commitment from state agencies, child care providers, and early childhood educators. Better Benefits for Oklahoma Families offers some ideas for starting that discussion. Specifically, CAP recommends that Oklahoma:

  • focus CCDF resources on high-quality care for the most at-risk children, even if fewer families can be served;
  • increase CCDF subsidies to be competitive with the cost of truly quality early care (typical subsidies are just over $5,000 per year for 8-10 hour days all year, compared to the nearly $8,000 cost of prekindergarten for 6-hour days and nine months of the year);
  • redesign the  quality rating system to apply higher standards across all providers, including child care, Head Start, and prekindergarten; incorporate outcome measures (such as school readiness) in assessing provider quality, and recognize and reward providers that successfully serve and retain a high proportion of low-income and other at-risk children. 

Oklahoma’s CCDF program is among the nation’s best; we are fortunate to have it as a platfom for building the nation’s best early learning system. We are poised to start building that system today and truly offer Better Benefits for Oklahoma families.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view, and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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