Subsequently, many observers were surprised when Oklahoma ranked near the bottom of applicants in a recent competition of states seeking federal grant money to fund early learning efforts.

On Dec. 16, the U.S. Department of Education announced the winners of the third round of Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. Oklahoma failed to make the cut.

Part of President Barack Obama’s education agenda, the competition focused on supporting states looking to increase early childhood development programs for at-risk children, design and implement a system of early learning, and ensure that any assessments conformed to National Research Council recommendations.

Oklahoma had come away empty-handed in two previous Race to the Top competitions not focused on early childhood education, but the state’s strong reputation in early learning had spurred high hopes for winning a $60 million Early Learning Challenge grant.

The state has been ranked first in the nation by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) for access to preschool, with 70 percent of 4-year-olds participating and 98 percent of school districts offering it.

Race to get stopped
Such successes, however, didn’t prevent Oklahoma from ranking number 30 out of 37 states that applied for the grant. California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington each received part of the $500 million.

The comment sheet scored by the federal government gave Oklahoma kudos in its dedication to early childhood education, but the state scored in the mid-range on most criteria. In some cases, the reviewer wrote, Oklahoma was too vague in its application and appeared somewhat disorganized.

At least one national expert, however, is taking issue with the way the states’ applications in Race to the Top are reviewed.

Steve Barnett, NIEER director at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he was confused about the merits of some states that ended up in the money.

“I think the grant proposals were judged on future promises and not past performances,” Barnett said. “If I look at some of the grantees ... I think it’s obvious why they won, and others, I just scratch my head. Some of these states were slashing and burning their programs while they were submitting their applications, so it’s difficult to understand why some of them won.”

Barnett said many of Oklahoma’s programs are among the best in the nation.

“To me, I would not have even let some of the winners compete. To me, any state that has been slashing its programs up until the point they apply for the grant should not be trusted to fulfill their promises,” he said. “[The grants] ought to be a reward for accomplishments, not future promises.”

Blue and red
Several national news articles took note of Oklahoma’s, as well as Pennsylvania’s — another state that has been lauded for its early childhood education work — low ranking, Editorials in The Oklahoman and Tulsa World pointed out that all the states awarded grants were ones that voted for Obama in 2008, contrasted with Oklahoma’s reputation as one of the “reddest” Republican states.

“It may not be fair,” the World’s Dec. 19 editorial stated, “but it’s a fact of life that administrations — Democratic and Republican — reward the states that voted for them. It’s always been that way and it likely always will be that way.”

It is difficult to determine why the state was snubbed, said Pat Potts, founder and president of the Potts Family Foundation, a charitable organization that promotes early childhood education through a coalition called Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities, or OKCEO.

“Our having this universal program preparing kids to succeed in school has been outstanding for quite some time,” she said. “As to the reason, I wonder if it is because we are so far ahead of so many other states in terms of what we’ve accomplished that they were trying to nudge some of the others to do more of the things we’ve already accomplished.”

State Superintendent Janet Barresi and Gov. Mary Fallin issued statements expressing disappointment that Oklahoma had not won the grant, but both vowed to continue strengthening the state’s early childhood education programs.

Photo by Shannon Cornman

  • or