Will Oklahoma continue to lead the way in early childhood education?

Young children have one of the strongest claims for public support. They are dependent on us and clearly not to blame for any economic hardships they face.

Early childhood is also a smart investment of public dollars, since providing a better start can lead to gains over an entire lifetime, as well as a substantial boost to economic development.

For these reasons, Oklahoma leaders in education, business, philanthropy, and politics have built early childhood programs and partnerships that earn national acclaim. Since 2003, Oklahoma has been ranked first in the nation for availability of public preschool, with a public pre-Kindergarten program offered by every school district and attended by about 71 percent of Oklahoma 4-year-olds.

At the same time, serious problems remain for Oklahoma children. We rank near the bottom of all states for infant mortality, child deaths, and teen births, and pressures on vulnerable children and families have only increased during the recession.

To better understand the overall picture, OK Policy undertook a project funded by Smart Start Oklahoma to map out all the supports for young children in our state. We examined the major programs for children ages 0-5 as well as trends and sources of their funding. Some special points of interest from our findings are listed below. You can also download a slide presentation, a 2-page summary, and the full data set with numbers going back to 2002.

  • A total of $1.500 billion in funding for Oklahoma children ages 0-5 was identified for fiscal year 2010. That total consisted of: $991.1 Million, or 66 percent, federal dollars; $384.6 Million, or 26 percent state dollars; $73.4 Million, or 5 percent local dollars; and $48.3 Million, or 3 percent, private dollars.
  • Major programs fit into four categories: 1) Early Education; 2) Health Care; 3) Basic Needs and Economic Security; and 4) Parenting Education, Child Care, and Family Support. Of those categories, health care received the most funds with 43 percent in FY 2010. Education received the second most funds at 30 percent. Basic Needs and Economic Security was third at 18 percent, and Parenting Education, Child Care, and Family Support was the smallest category at 9 percent.
  • Funding for health care and basic needs of young children has increased most dramatically in recent years. This reflects greater federal support for these programs as well as rising needs during the recession. SoonerCare (Medicaid) is by far the largest program for young children, serving 2/3rds of all children ages 0-5 in Oklahoma. SNAP food stamp benefit payments have tripled since 2002, and the WIC program providing basic nutrition for young mothers and their children has also steadily increased in enrollment.
  • Child care and parenting education programs have received the deepest cuts. These include Child Care Subsidies, the Children First home visiting program for new mothers, and Start Right (child abuse prevention). State funding for all of these programs was reduced in FY 2010.
  • Total private support is only about 3 percent of funding. Oklahoma has made substantial efforts to leverage private support, in particular the State Pilot Project that brings in $15 million annually from the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Nevertheless, the funding needs dwarf what the Oklahoma private sector is capable of providing.
  •  As federal support declines, state and local governments will face pressure to pick up the slack. Federal funding has played are larger role in recent years, both due to the stimulus bill that allowed the federal government to take more responsibility for certain programs, as well as federal entitlement spending that increased to meet higher demand during the economic downturn. However, stimulus policies are soon to expire, and efforts in Congress to reduce federal budget deficits may result in further cuts. Over the medium and long-term, Oklahoma will need to find a new equilibrium between funding streams to avoid reducing the effectiveness of the state’s supports for young children.

Some new funding opportunities are on the horizon. Recently announced federal Early Learning Challenge grants emphasize early childhood education, and Oklahoma’s track record gives us an excellent chance at winning up to $60 million. Oklahoma is currently developing an application for the grant, and the Governor will review the application prior to giving final approval.

The grant guidelines encourage the kind of evidence-based policies that Oklahoma has already made substantial progress on: expanding access to early education for children with high needs, improving pre-K assessment with clear standards, raising the quality of professional development for teachers, and establishing sustainable funding streams via collaboration across agencies and public-private partnerships.

Oklahoma can use this one-time opportunity to build infrastructure that will improve services to children and families without having a long-term impact on spending. In doing so, we can use federal resources on our own terms to keep Oklahoma among the nation’s leaders in early childhood education and offer a more promising future for our most disadvantaged kids.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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