Early Childhood Education Programs

Aug 24, 2021
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Executive Summary

Key Objectives

  • Provide an overview of all publicly funded early childhood programs
  • Identify the goals and measurable performance outcomes of programs
  • Establish coordination among programs
  • Determine effectiveness of early childhood programs, how outcomes are measured, and whether there are sustained benefits.

Key Metrics

  • In FY18, approximately 40 thousand children were enrolled in the State’s Universal Pre-K program.
  • In FY18, Oklahoma’s Pre-K funding per pupil was nearly four times higher than Florida, another state which provides universal preschool.
  • In FY20, Oklahoma had the ninth highest funding Pre-K funding per pupil in the nation.
  • On average, 40 percent of Oklahoma third grade students begin the school year with at-risk reading sufficiency rates; a five percent increase from kindergarten.
  • In FY20, 44 percent of all Oklahoma kindergarten through third grade students had an at-risk reading sufficiency rate.

States invest in early childhood education and services for the purpose of establishing a strong developmental foundation from which lifelong learning can occur.

The time between a child’s birth and when they turn five years of age is a period of rapid brain development and learning. Research has established the long-term societal benefits of high-quality early childhood programs, as well as short-and-long-term educational benefits, including enhanced educational attainment and reduced special education costs.

As early childhood education programs seek to advance the development of children, the services provided are inextricably interwoven with those within the scope of health and human services.

With this evaluation, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) sought to provide both clarity and understanding to Oklahoma’s early childhood ecosystem by creating a fiscal framework to identify all stakeholders, assess collective State and programmatic efforts, and to examine whether the current funding strategy is effective in providing early childhood-centric services. In doing so, LOFT identified four domains across which services are provided:


LOFT’s evaluation of these domains resulted in four key findings:

Finding 1: Early Childhood is Not an Education-Driven System.

In FY18, 19 different early childhood programs were funded through five State agencies at a cost of $1.6 billion; 30 percent of which was allocated for education initiatives.

In FY18, federal spending accounted for 56 percent of all revenue supporting Oklahoma’s early childhood system, yet just five percent of federal funds are from the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). LOFT’s analysis revealed just 18 percent of federal funding is allocated toward education-centric childhood programs.


LOFT found that at both the federal and state level, funding and programs are more concentrated toward health and human services programs than early education programs. The funding analysis also revealed that total funding for the State’s early childhood system has increased despite a consistent decline in the State’s population of children under the age of five.

While federal funding is the largest revenue source for early childhood programs, (nearly 60 percent), the State’s investment in early childhood is increasing at a faster rate than the federal investment. However, the State’s decentralized early childhood system makes it challenging to align strategic goals and outcomes across the different agencies and programs receiving state funds. For example, five early childhood agencies report to between three and four different committees within the legislative appropriation and budgeting process.

Since 2004, seven states have created an entity to oversee several early care and education components; four of which were established since 2014.

Finding 2: Oklahoma Has Opportunities to Streamline Early Childhood Investments and Improve Efficiencies Through a Unified State Strategy.

Each of the varied early childhood education (ECE) programs provided by the State has its own standards, governance structure, and targeted demographic. Individual families and children can participate in multiple programs – sometimes simultaneously - and providers can blend resources from multiple revenue streams including state, federal and private resources. The overlap of services across various agencies targeting similar demographics creates the potential for duplication of services as well as uncoordinated services to families.


The State’s current mixed delivery system creates an expanding web of vision, goals and objectives for specific programs and targeted populations – with little attention given to the high potential of duplication of services or collaboration. This is not a challenge unique to Oklahoma. Several states have recently addressed inefficiencies and challenges with their respective early childhood systems by adapting their governance structures. Most recently, Colorado and New Mexico have created independent state agencies to centralize decision making, coordinate strategic goals and to streamline funding for early childhood- centric services and programs.

Finding 3: Oklahoma’s Fragmented Funding Approach to Early Childhood Limits Accountability and Effectiveness.

With this finding, LOFT examined programs and services within the educational domain of the State’s early childhood system; those whose primary mission is to improve school readiness and the cognitive abilities of young children.

Operating early childhood education programs across different agencies that use varied funding streams creates challenges regarding administration, accountability, and consistency of data, as there are often separate requirements regarding allowable expenses, reporting, data collection and recipient eligibility. Currently, program accountability is tied to the source of funds, an agency-centric administrative approach as opposed to child-centric.

Likewise, decentralization makes it difficult for families to navigate the system or be aware of all programs and services for which they qualify.

State, Federal and local funds combine in nearly equal parts to fund the education programs within the scope of early childhood. LOFT determined the funding per pupil, inclusive of all revenue sources, for early childhood education programs was $6,753 in FY18, with the State providing services to more than 72,817 unduplicated children aged birth through 5. The largest program by enrollment was the State’s Universal Pre-K program, which served nearly 40,000 children in 2018.


Finding 4: Lack of Data Limits the State’s Ability to Assess Investments and Outcomes into Early Childhood Education.

Early childhood data is currently compartmentalized in different state agencies with separate source systems; moreover, much of this information is highly sensitive, requiring rigorous data governance, management, and oversight. Having the capacity to share information across State agencies on the same targeted population is critical to identifying and addressing the underlying factors for a student’s academic performance.

While there are some examples of data sharing and collaboration, most of Oklahoma’s early childhood programs and services remain siloed. The resulting lack of comprehensive data limits the ability of policymakers to assess early childhood investments and performance outcomes. Despite having both federal data collection and reporting requirements for many of the early childhood education programs, no in-depth assessment has been conducted to determine the impact or return on investment for the State’s early childhood education programs.

LOFT’s research found that other states have completed performance- based assessments on their respective prekindergarten programs that analyze academic outcomes, inform stakeholders and identify return on investments. New Mexico and Alabama are two examples of states that have been able to provide state leaders timely, accessible information from which to make data-driven decisions.

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