Patrick B. McGuigan
The decision to seek up to $60 million in grants from the Obama administration's Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge has been greeted ambivalently by traditional allies of Governor Mary Fallin and Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi. A SoonerPoll finds likely voters prefer programs to strengthen the ability of families to provide their own pre-Kindergarten care over expansions of government programs.
Still, a range of political, business and civic leaders have cheered the grant application decision, which Fallin and Barresi, joined by Cabinet Education Secretary Phyllis Hudecki, unveiled in a state Capitol press conference last week.
House Speaker Kris Steele, who clashed with Superintendent Barresi over a legislative proposal to shift by two months the cutoff date for children entering Kindergarten and four-year-old programs, nonetheless endorsed the decision of Gov. Mary Fallin to seek the Obama administration grant. The Shawnee Republican said, “If the state gets the money on its own terms, it's a win-win for everyone because we'll be able to offer ore of something we already do well.” Senate President Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican, also endorsed the grant application.
State Chamber President Fred Morgan supported Gov. Fallin's description of the early childhood schooling drive as part of her emphasis on economic development. He said, “A focus on early childhood development will ensure Oklahoma has a skilled workforce capable of competing in the global marketplace long into the future.”
Gerald Clancy – president of the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and chairman of the Tulsa Metro Chamber – joined chamber CEO Michael S. Neal backed the Fallin-Barresi-Hudecki announcement last week. They wrote to Fallin, “The business community values federal investment that cultivates economic development.” The pair pointed to transporation spending and to research and development funding as examples of federal expenditures that “leverage other funding and directly produce economic growth. Spending for early childhood education is an equally wise investment.”
Carl Edwards, chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, backed the grant application and encouraged the governor and Barresi “to use the application as a way to improve our early education wtihout committing our state to any ongoing unfunded mandates.”
Several business and community leaders involved with Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEO) applauded the grant decision, incuding Pat Potts of the Potts Family Foundation, executive director Debra Andersen of Smart Start Oklahoma, Business Roundtable President Blake Wade, and Bob Ross of the Inasumuch Foundation.
In conjunction with last month's Smart Start Oklahoma conference on …. , members of the child care industry and other advocates strongly encouraged Fallin and the state government to submit the “Race to the Top” grant. Support for the application was one of several policy proposals forwarded to Fallin by members of the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR), a group established in 2003.
At last month's Smart Start conference, Lisa Klein of the Birth to Five Policy Alliance was the first speaker of the day. Although one speaker during the Smart Start conference 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.
Also last month, a public opinion survey conducted by SoonerPoll for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs 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.”