Oklahomans ambivalent about early childhood programs, teachers critical of three-year-old programs and Obama grant

 The decision of state officials to seek an Obama administration grant for early childhood education was applauded by a variety of pre-school advocates last week. However, many conservatives are ambivalent about the idea, and polling shows Oklahomans would prefer steps to allow more parents to care for their own children.

A recent survey of members of Professional Oklahoma Educators, the state’s non-union teachers’ association, found opposition to the grant application and special concern about birth to three-year-old programs.

Reed Downey, a conservative education reform activist, said in an email to Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi this week, “Just wanted to let you know that you are getting negative responses from some conservatives by supporting the $60 million Federal Grant for early childhood development. I personally do not believe in the proposition that ‘It Takes a Village.’ This is too much NCLB intrusion into what should be a family issue. Better we work on strengthening families than have our kids raised by the State.”

Last week, Governor Mary Fallin joined Barresi and Cabinet Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki to announce application for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program.

In a reply to Downey’s email, the Republican superintendent said she and Fallin agreed with concerns about family issues: “That is why we are making this grant very narrow in scope and targeted to kindergarten reediness for 4 and 5 year olds.

“First of all let me say that this program will be voluntary, will not require an infusion of additional state dollars and will largely take existing state programs and improve on their quality and voluntary access by parents. Oklahoma is a national leader in the programs and services that we already offer to parents in poverty for their infants and preschoolers.

“These are services offered by DHS (Department of Human Services), the Health Department and the SDE (state Education Department). However, many of them are duplicative and therefore, overlap and confusion reduces effectiveness of the programs. For instance, SDE has an outstanding ‘Parents as Teachers’ program with in home visits by trainers to do actual hands on work with young parents (many times teenage moms) and is focused on helping them develop in their parenting skills and to be that most important first line teacher of their small child. DHS overlaps with their own counseling. If we have a coordinated system, we can be more efficient.

“The only really ‘new’ thing we will do is a one time expense with grant dollars to develop a comprehensive kindergarten readiness assessment. This is by no means an attempt to keep kids out of Kindergarten, but is one designed to identify kids as early as possible who are at risk for developing learning problems. Teachers can then develop a focused learning strategy for each child identified that will optimally address each child’s needs. The costs are in the development of the assessment. Teachers have been asking for this for years.

“We will also try to create opportunities for faith-based organizations to assist with parent counseling and training. Many churches are doing some work with family and parent counseling. We would like to see if we can include them in the project.

“As I’ve been in office, I’ve seen close up the devastating affects that poverty has on these children and their families. We are trying to give support and assistance to parents on a voluntary basis. That is the way the grant will be written.

“If it is not approved, then so be it. We will continue to work to implement our plan but on a slower trajectory. The Kindergarten assessment is sorely needed. Our principal goal above all is to give children in poverty the same opportunity to enter Kindergarten on the same footing as those kids that come from homes where these advantages are evident. In both cases, the parent is the leader. It is all about attaining proficiency in reading by third grade.”

Barresi told Downey, “Feel free to distribute this.”

In Oklahoma, public opinion inclines parental care of pre-school children rather than custodial care in school settings.

Bill Shapard of SoonerPoll, writing last month for CapitolBeatOK, said, “When asked what early-childhood policies the state government should focus on more, 56.6 percent of respondents said making it more affordable to stay home with young children compared to only 26.1 percent who preferred creating or expanding government programs. Another 17.3 percent of respondents either had no opinion or refused to answer the question.

“When the results are broken down by household income it is revealed that 60.1 percent of respondents from homes that make less than $35,000 a year would prefer the state government focus on making it more affordable to stay home with children. Only 22.9 percent of respondents in the less than $35,000 a year demographic preferred expanding state-funded early-childhood programs.”

Shapard, whose firm conducted the public opinion survey for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, continued, “SoonerPoll also asked respondents to assume there is a limited amount of money and choose whether state-funded preschool programs or tax breaks for stay-at-home parents should take precedence.

“Results indicate that 55 percent of respondents thought expanding the tax break for parents who stay at home with their 4-year-olds should take precedence compared to 31.3 percent who said state-funded preschool programs. Another 13.6 percent of respondents either had no opinion or refused to answer the question.

“A similar pattern emerges when this question is broken down by household income. Of those respondents whose household income is less than $35,000 a year, 59 percent would prefer that the government expand the tax break for stay-at-home parents. Only 25.1 percent of respondents in the less than $35,000 a year demographic preferred increasing the amount spent on state-funded preschool programs.”

A majority of members in Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) who responded to an August survey were opposed to birth to three-year-old pre-school ideas popular with advocates. A summary of results was provided to CapitolBeatOK.

One educator in the POE membership survey said, “Kids need time to be kids. We already have people acting as glorified babysitters for parents who don’t want to be parents. I see no reason to promote any more of it.”

Another said, “Infants in school? You’re kidding! Too much structure, too much pressure, way too early! I have a former student who is a pre-K teacher in another school in our state, and that school is eliminating the students’ rest period because it is ‘wasted time’.”

Analysis from POE staff observed, “Many respondents admit that some parents are not equipped to give their children the early learning environment that is necessary to prepare them for school. However, they suggest that parents should be given training and tools to help their children, rather than have the government take over the full responsibility of educating children from birth.”

One of the surveyed educators commented, “It would be a good idea to educate parents on ways that they could help their young children learn, but, we definitely do not need more federal control.” The POE commentary concluded, “The majority of respondents who indicated they were against applying for the grant mentioned that it is simply because of the federal control that is likely to follow the funds.”

Others in the survey asserted that public education is already underfunded, and that any new resources should keep current programs afloat, rather than fashion new initiatives.

One of the POE members said, “Funding should be allocated to reduce classroom size in existing classrooms before efforts are put toward adding more programs. Our schools are suffering from increased student loads, and teachers are not receiving needed assistance to handle these large class sizes. Let’s use funding to improve our current system before we expand our educational system to include even more students.”

In the 2011 legislative session, Superintendent Barresi and her staff helped stop House Bill 1465, which had strong support from members of POE. The measure would have shifted by two months (from September 1 to July 1) the “cut-off” date for 4-year-old and Kindergarten programs.

Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, had backed the measure, which prevailed 78-16 in his chamber. The bill by state Rep. Dennis Johnson, a Duncan Republican, passed on a unanimous 45-0 vote in its first go-round in the Senate. Moving through the process after minor revisions, it cleared a House conference committee.

 Barresi then asked for the measure to be spiked in Senate conference and it was.