Obama administration rebuffs Oklahoma’s early childhood education grant submission

  The Obama administration has rejected the state of Oklahoma’s application for an Early Learning Challenge – Race to the Top (RTT-ELC) grant worth up to $60 million.

News of the decision began to circulate to state officials across the nation late yesterday. Among the many applicants, Georgia has also fallen short, early reports indicate.

Oklahoma’s application, submitted this fall, drew criticism from conservatives, normally allies of the governor and the superintendent. And, a statewide SoonerPoll found Oklahomans ambivalent about the cost of such programs.

However, advocates of expanded government-funded early childhood programs cheered the application, including many Chamber of Commerce leaders.

In statements, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative “think tank” in Washington D.C., warned against the dangers of taking federal money and the new “strings”it could attach to state education policy. An analyst for the foundation even testified about early childhood and about the “common core” curriculum at a fall interim study hearing.

USA Today reported this past week that the winning states were California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington state.

On September 20, Gov. Mary Fallin put Superintendent Barresi in charge of fashioning the state’s application for the grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The state sought up to $60 million from the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program.

Representatives of the state Department of Education participated in a late summer federal conference, held in Texas, intended to help states prepare for the grant process. At the time of the announcement in September, Fallin insisted the application fit with her administration’s goals to put jobs and economic development as the state’ top priority. Building an educated workforce and assuring children are kindergarten ready both fit with that goal, she said at the time.

Barresi said her efforts were focused on finding ways to improve accountability and performance in existing programs for four- and five-year olds. A stated objective is to build quality data collection and use that to guide sound policies and programs in reading and other areas, Barresi said in September.

In dialogue with reporters, Fallin said the “Race to the Top” grant process was “totally different” than the health insurance exchange process she rejected in April. Barresi has said the state’s early childhood education programs are “totally voluntary” and would remain so.

Barresi said the state’s application was designed not to create a “start-up” grant for early childhood education, to reward steps like the 5-Star rating system for early childhood programs, an initial move Oklahoma took toward certification of early childhood learning sites. Barresi has said the grant was intended to bolster the state’s new law requiring that students read at grade level by third grade.

Oklahoma officials have prided themselves on development of early childhood programs, but critics have continued to question effectiveness of the programs, and the wisdom of diverting resources from K-12 programs.