School readiness partnership plans to make recommendations to Governor Mary Fallin

At an afternoon meeting in Oklahoma City, leaders of several organizations in early childhood education advocacy or services gathered to read (and, in the end, endorse) policy recommendations that will be forwarded to Governor Mary Fallin this fall. As the recommendations were discussed, however, a new public opinion poll documented that many voters are dubious about further expansion of government programs to provide early childhood education.

The recommendations come from the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR), a group established in 2003. The partnership’s mission is described as “to lead Oklahoma in coordinating an early childhood system focused on strengthening families and school readiness for all children.” The organization’s vision is characterized as seeking to assure “ that all Oklahoma children will be safe, healthy, eager to learn and ready to succeed by the time they enter school.”

Since 2010, OPSR has carried on the duties of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council (SECAC).

The 2012 policy recommendations remain in draft stage, and can be read on the website of Smart Start Oklahoma. Leaders of Smart Start Oklahoma told CapitolBeatOK the draft document will include comments made at last week’s meeting, and that the text of the recommendations will not be finalized until August 31.

Among those supporting the draft documents were Julie Bisbee of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, Francie Day of the Jump Start Tulsa Coalition, an operator of several child care resource centers in Oklahoma City, and representatives of the Oklahoma Child Care Association.

 The first governance recommendation considered at the meeting asked “that the Governor designate an individual at the cabinet level or within the Governor’s office as a liaison with the OPSR to assure effective coordination and implementation of mutual goals.

Supporting information for the recommendation asserted, “Advancing a bold early childhood platform will provide Oklahoma a strong foundation to develop a prepared workforce. OPSR and the Governor’s office working jointly will advance systems changes. Working within the existing network of state agency leaders and private sector early childhood stakeholders through the OPSR can assure that services are accessible, efficiently delivered, and evaluated.”

A second recommendation asked “that the Governor and Lt. Governor support Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEO)4 through recognition at an annual event.”

In the draft narrative, this recommendation was explained as follows: “OKCEO communicates the early childhood message to business related groups. Business leaders help spread the message about the high return on investment for resources devoted to early childhood education.

“Oklahoma business leaders and policy makers need recognition for their contributions towards promoting and supporting quality early childhood development as well as promoting family friendly business practices in Oklahoma.”

OKCEO is a statewide organization for business leaders who back the state’s early childhood education programs.

In arguably the most substantive policy recommendation of the gathering, participants raised concerns over loss of a child care subsidy for parents seeking early childhood services. The recommendation encouraged “that strategies be identified to prioritize revenue increases to rescind the increase in sliding scale co-payment instituted by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) effective November 1, 2011.”

The supporting material contends, “Parents who participate in the child care subsidy program will experience increases to their portion of the co-payment effective November 1, 2011. The increase will have a significant financial impact on middle and lower income working families requiring their co-pay to increase as much as 30%. This can result in a reduction of access to quality child care for approximately 13,000 working families who are not able to meet the new co-pay amount.

“Increased co-payments correlate with decreased participation in licensed child care, an increase in unlicensed child care, reducing the opportunity for quality early experiences and increased potential for safety and health risks, and closure of child care centers and homes.”

Advocates also sought to continue a steady intensification of regulation of child care providers in the state, with a recommendation asking that “input and support be given to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in the proposal of rule changes during the 2012 legislative session to enhance the Quality Rating and Improvement System as set forth in OAC:340-110-1-8.3.”

Supporting material explained, “The Star Advisory Committee makes recommendations about changes to the program to ensure that the quality of early care and education continues to improve in Oklahoma. The addition of a fourth and fifth Star level is recommended as well as new criteria that include training in the state’s early learning standards and recognition of programs that meet federal Head Start Performance Standards.”

As for the rating system, dubbed QRIS, supporters want it made mandatory, “based on quality standards that guide construction of a plan for addressing strengths and deficits in the quality of all early care and learning programs (child care, public education and Head Start and Early Head Start).”

Supporters maintain, “Children experiencing a high quality early childhood education are better prepared to enter school and have more positive outcomes throughout their lives. To improve the quality of child care in Oklahoma and provide child care providers with financial incentives.”

Touching on technical issues for OPSR as an organization, another draft recommendation wants planning efforts to “continue toward a unified data collection system to drive improvements in early childhood program outcomes.”

As organizers said in the planning document, OPSR is overseeing “a collaborative effort among agencies to develop a longitudinal coordinated early childhood data system.” According to supporters, “The purpose of an early childhood data system would be to drive improvements in early childhood program outcomes. In order to achieve this purpose, the system would need to:

“1) link with or integrate with other child data systems; 2) track program outcomes from the perinatal period through adolescence; 3) protect child and family privacy; and 4) have adequate personnel and resources to analyze and report findings related to early childhood outcomes.”

OPSR’s activists believe a measure passed in the 2011 legislative session, “The Information Technology Consolidation and Coordination Act creates an opportunity for the OPSR planning efforts to become integrated within a larger state systems planning effort.:

In closing action, the group encouraged convening a meeting in 2012 for “stakeholders to identify a developmentally appropriate and best practice assessment process for school readiness (or child assessment) in Oklahoma in 2012.”

The supporting information for this final recommendation was described this way: “Oklahoma’s literacy skills in Kindergarten are assessed using one of three measures which are not collected for use in state analysis.

“Effective tools to measure school readiness should cross all developmental domains and align with the state’s early learning standards for the purpose of better informing families and teachers on young children’s learning and development. The use of consistent tools across the state would help inform policymakers on early childhood program effectiveness and accountability.”

To meet requirements in both state and federal legislation, the partnership works through a workgroup structure. The draft policy recommendations approved Thursday flowed form the work of “collective input” from workgroups focused on public engagement, data system and coordination, community mobilization, quality, access, standards and accountability, professional development and workforce, special populations, and policy and workgroup coordination.

Also, in the morning and early afternoon hours before the gathering focused on recommendations to the governor, the first annual “Smart Start Oklahoma Conference” was held at the downtown Oklahoma City Sheraton Hotel. Former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry and his wife Kim were honored during a lunch banquet for their leadership in establishing Oklahoma as a strong haven for the model of early childhood education national advocates have proposed.

Treasurer Ken Miller, substituting for Governor Fallin (out-of-town on an economic development trip in New York City) welcomed participants in the morning. Lisa G. Klein of the Birth to Five Policy Alliance spoke. Blake Wade, president of the Oklahoma Business Roundtable, led recognition of several advocates of early childhood programs.

Barry L. Downing, founder of Northrock Inc. and the Opportunity project in Wichita, Kansas, asserted “the power of early education in economic development,” after an introduction by Bob Ross of the Inasmuch Foundation.

Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez led a panel discussion focused on “leveraging resources for Oklahoma children.” That panel included Martha Burger of Chesapeake Energy, Ken Levit of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Democratic state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City and Republican state Rep. Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City.

David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute presented a detailed analysis of the extent of early childhood education, nutrition, health and other programs in the Sooner State.

Although one speaker during the day said the case for government funding of early childhood education is unassailable, many Oklahomans are unpersuaded even after several years of expanded four-year-old programs and the start of many initiatives aimed at three-year-olds. 

Last week, SoonerPoll issued results of a public opinion survey commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). In sum, the survey found, “By a ratio of more than 2 to 1, likely Oklahoma voters prefer the state to make it more affordable to stay home with children from birth to age 5, as opposed to creating and expanding programs.”