JOURNAL RECORD STAFF
Oklahoma families, businesses and the state as a whole would benefit from more investment in childcare and early childhood education, according to leaders who participated in a recent symposium on the topic.
The goal of the forum held at the Capitol, organized by the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR), was to draw attention to needs, especially in rural parts of the state, and to how those might be addressed by lawmakers during the upcoming session of the Oklahoma Legislature.
According to the OPSR, more than half of Oklahoma is considered a “childcare desert” and families in many counties have no options at all when it comes to programs designed to help prepare children for kindergarten. The symposium highlighted the importance of care and education, and why investing in programs would be beneficial for children, families and the state’s economy.
The programs and services we invest in for our children are significant drivers of a healthy, productive economy,” OPSR Executive Director Carrie Williams said. “We are so thankful to have the opportunity to share that message with policy makers.”
Contributors to a panel discussion included Justin Brown, director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services; Rachel Proper, a representative of the Oklahoma Child Care Association; Cindy Decker with Tulsa Educare; Sarah Roberts, vice president of programs at the Inasmuch Foundation; Linda Manaugh from Potts Family Foundation; and Tom Cassidy and Kaitlyn Hunter, representatives from INTEGRIS Health. They offered input on public and private partnerships that have yielded benefits to the state, as well as on upcoming opportunities for expansion of services.
“It was critically important not only to highlight what Oklahoma is doing well, but also where we need to do more,” Williams said. “Our panelists were able to do that by (focusing on) needs of Oklahoma’s children and those who care for them.”
State senators George Young, a Democrat, and John Haste, a Republican, served as legislative co-hosts. Other legislators and Capitol staffers were encouraged to attend.
Organizers pointed to solid evidence that investments by states in early childhood programs pay dividends both in the short and long term, and not just to kids and families, but to communities.
Dr. Art Rolnik, who represented the Department of Economics at the University of Minnesota, said benefits are both tangible and measurable.
“Our studies have found there is an 18% annual rate of return on an investment in early childhood for at-risk youth – mostly public because the cost of schooling goes way down,” he said.
Rolnik said investments in early childhood programs also tend to reduce social costs over the long term, such as those related to unemployment and crime.
“It’s clear from our point of view that we are way under-investing in early childhood education, especially for at-risk youth,” he said.
Dr. Amelia Bachleda, from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, who presented on the science of early brain development, said it is critical to address development of children very early in life.
“More than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second in the first few years of a child’s life,” she said. “The more often children have experiences, the stronger the connections are going to be, making it extremely important to begin focusing early on those experiences that can help them build important life skills.”
The symposium was funded through a grant given to OPSR by the Alliance for Early Success, a national nonprofit that works with early childhood policy advocates at the state level.
“Our hope is that we can take what we learned at the symposium and carry it forward,” Haste said. “We want to ensure we are giving the appropriate attention to early childhood.”