According to the statewide early childhood education initiative Smart Start Oklahoma, 30% of kindergartners do not perform on a kindergarten level.
Combine that with research showing nearly 90% of a child’s brain is formed by age 5, and one can see Oklahoma’s brain drain starts much earlier than most might think. That’s why local nonprofits and business leaders have formed the Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunity, or OKCEO.
“Our foundation became very interested early on how we could change the trajectory of negative statistics in our state, and it really took us to looking at what the root causes were,” says Pat Potts, president of the Potts Family Foundation. “The more we studied it, the more we saw
research that showed that in the first three years of life, 85% of the brain develops.”
That statistic made Blake Wade stand up and take notice. The president of the Oklahoma Business Roundtable knew his membership would want to hear it.
“I was startled when I was told that, and I use that with everyone who will listen to me,” Wade says. “Can you imagine if every child was able to be in that environment for the first three years, just how structured they will be for the rest of their lives?” The roundtable was interested.
Meeting three times a year, the Oklahoma Business Roundtable is comprised of more than 115 local CEOs. The group reaches all the way into the state Capitol, and Oklahoma Commerce Secretary Dave Lopez is a former chairman of the roundtable.
“We saw the opportunity to join in because we really need to be taking these opportunities for our children, because they’re going to grow up to be our workforce,” Wade says.
The roundtable works to put in place private funding for Oklahoma business development efforts. And right now, private funding may be the answer as the state looks for programs to trim.
Oklahoma is one of the few states to contribute additional funds to the federal Head Start dollars distributed to community agencies.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Wade says. “This is an eye-opener that’s very critical to all of us. It’s amazing how many people don’t realize about the first three years of a child’s life. That is the message, and we’ve got to get it out there.”
Nationally, the funding picture is bleaker.The cost of providing early education programs would be close to $70 billion, or roughly $8,700 per child, annually.
According to statistics provided by the National Institute for Early Education Research, the cost of providing early education programs for the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds would be close to $70 billion, or roughly $8,700 per child, annually.
One of the lasting legacies of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Head Start tries to equal the playing field for disadvantaged children. Last year, the U.S. spent $7 billion on the program.
As the nation continues to dig itself out of recession, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed to cut nearly a fourth of Head Start funding, which would have dropped more than 200,000 students from the program and 55,000 workers.
The spending bill was defeated in the Senate, but the program has been targeted.
Potts says the American workforce now works more hours than any of the industrialized nations, but students attend school for less hours than any industrialized nation.
“The kids are sort of lost in the midst of all this,” he says. “You either have to pay now in the first few years of life supporting parents and community resources for them, or you pay many times more with kids that are not doing well in school and end up dropping out.
“I think anybody who understands how critical human capital development is to our future economic well-being understands if we withdraw resources that are working and making a difference, we are going to be hurting our state in the long run.”