LOFT releases Early Childhood Education report (Capitol Update)

The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) was created by the legislature in 2019 for the purpose of assisting the legislature “in performing its constitutional and statutory function of ensuring that government funds are expended in a fiscally responsible manner.” The agency does its work through research and written reports on topics directed by a joint legislative oversight committee chaired by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston. Among its most recent work is a report evaluating Oklahoma Early Childhood Education programs, issued last week.

LOFT reported, not surprisingly, that most early childhood programs and spending in Oklahoma are directed toward health and human services rather than early childhood education. Of the $1.6 billion spent on early childhood programs (56 percent of it federal), only 31 percent is allocated to early childhood education. LOFT concluded that the state’s multi-agency delivery system allows for the potential of duplication of services and lack of collaboration. LOFT noted that recently Colorado and New Mexico have created independent state agencies to centralize decision making, coordinate strategic goals and streamline funding for early childhood services and programs and suggested that Oklahoma might consider doing the same.

LOFT found that operating early childhood education programs across different agencies that use varied funding streams creates challenges regarding administration, accountability, and consistency of data, as there are often separate requirements regarding allowable expenses, reporting, data collection, and recipient eligibility.  LOFT determined that in FY 2018 the funding per pupil for the state’s universal pre-K education was four times higher than Florida, another state that provides universal preschool. In FY 2020, Oklahoma had the ninth highest pre-K funding per pupil in the nation. I hope we can continue that so Gov. Stitt can check it on his “Top Ten State” list.  

I’m not sure what is the underlying aim of the LOFT recommendations. If it is to point out the lack of data to prove whether or not our early childhood education programs are working, it could be a good thing. But how the programs are organized, though possibly helpful with data collection, may have little to do with whether they are working. Over the past 30 years, beginning with HB 1017 in 1990 and following through the years with even greater commitment through many legislative sessions, Oklahoma leaders decided to try to properly fund pre-K education. It’s a fair question to ask whether the state is getting its money’s worth.

The question of organizing government services by the service being provided or by the persons being served is nothing new. Should children’s services of all kinds be consolidated in a children’s agency with experts in every field, or should health, mental health, education, public safety, etc. each have an agency where the expertise is consolidated to serve both adults and children? Every thoughtful generation of legislators has asked this question, and there have been changes, usually incremental. These are good questions to ask, and LOFT is a good place to ask them. They are less likely to succumb to a “change for the sake of change” mentality that can sometimes grip the executive branch.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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