Fallin, Barresi seek $60 million early childhood learning grant from Obama administration

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin today (Tuesday, September 20) put Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi in charge of fashioning the state’s application for a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Oklahoma will seek up to $60 million from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program.

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Barresi confirmed Oklahoma had participated in a recent federal conference, held in Texas, intended to help states prepare for the grant process. She said staff had attended so they could be ready “if the governor decided to apply.” 

Fallin insisted the application fits 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. 

Barresi and the chief executive, joined by Cabinet Secretary for Education Phyllis Hudecki, said it would be their priority to avoid “funding cliffs” in the form of starting programs that could not be sustained. 

In response to questions from CapitolBeatOK, the trio said educational choice would be among the issues examined as part of the review. Barresi stressed, however, that 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 response to a question suggesting the program was an expansion of government, Barresi said, “It’s not expanding any programs. We will look at what we have and how to build it and improve it.” 

Barresi said that Oklahoma’s program would not include three-year-olds, but was intended as “taking one-time money and trying to improve” on existing programs. 

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 said the state’s early childhood education programs are “totally voluntary” and would remain so.

The grant submission Superintendent Barresi is designing aims not at creating a “start-up” grant for early childhood education, but at rewarding steps like the 5-Star rating system for early childhood programs, a step Oklahoma took toward certification of early childhood learning sites. 

Barresi said the state’s stress on reading readiness builds into the new requirement to avoid “social promotion” of non-readers after third grade.