Education benefit of Oklahoma’s early-childhood programs questioned

August 24, 2021

Ray Carter

Government spending on early childhood programs is often justified as a way to make certain that children are educationally prepared for school by the time they enter kindergarten.

But a new report by the state’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) shows that most Oklahoma government spending on early childhood is not focused on addressing academic needs and, for the small share of funding directed to early childhood education, state officials have not bothered to determine if that spending is improving academic results.

“Despite the increasing investment and growth in pre-K funding per pupil, LOFT was unable to examine academic outcomes nor calculate the return on investment to the State due to a lack of performance benchmarks, evaluations, and assessments of the State’s pre-K program,” the report stated.

The report said officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education told LOFT reviewers that the agency does not “collect or track performance information” for Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program.

Instead, Oklahoma State Department of Education officials referenced National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) annual reports that measure the percentage of Oklahoma school districts offering pre-K and the percentage of 4-year-olds utilizing the program.

“However, this metric only measures access and not performance of educational and cognitive development, two distinct variables,” the LOFT report noted. “To date, OSDE has not conducted an in-depth research or performance evaluation to assess if the State’s universal pre-K or other early childhood programs have made an impact on students’ academic outcomes. LOFT’s research found that other states have completed performance-based assessments on their respective prekindergarten programs to analyze academic outcomes, inform stakeholders, and identify return on investments.”

The report noted data on students entering Kindergarten provides an indirect measurement of the effectiveness of Oklahoma’s early childhood spending.

In 2013, state data showed that 34 percent of kindergarten students were considered “at risk” on measurements of reading preparedness. By 2018, that figure was still 33 percent, and had been as high as 37 percent of Kindergarteners during intervening years.

During the 2013 to 2018 period, LOFT found that Oklahoma’s total investment in early childhood education increased by 12 percent even as kindergarteners’ reading-preparedness measurements remained stagnant.

In 2020, the LOFT report noted that 44 percent of all Oklahoma kindergarten through third grade students had “at risk” reading scores on assessments.

“Year over year, more Oklahoma students are beginning their academic journey further behind than previous cohorts,” Regina Birchum, deputy director of LOFT, told members of the agency’s legislative oversight committee when presenting the report. “It should also be noted that this data is all pre-COVID.”

LOFT found similar trends when examining Oklahoma’s reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

“LOFT finds that despite significant investments in early childhood education spending, student assessment scores from Oklahoma fourth graders reflect minimal advances in academic performance,” the report stated.

Although Oklahoma’s total early childhood education spending increased by 52 percent from the 2005 to 2017 budget years, the report said that “Oklahoma fourth grade NAEP assessment scores remained relatively flat.”

“These findings raise questions regarding the link between funding and outcomes that LOFT is not equipped to answer through this evaluation,” the report stated.

In the 2020 budget year, LOFT found that Oklahoma had the ninth-highest pre-K funding per pupil in the nation. From 2011 to 2018, LOFT found that Oklahoma early childhood education funding experienced “a linear increase in funding” and received over $3.8 billion combined during that period.

LOFT found that at both the federal and state level, early childhood funding and programs “are more concentrated toward health and human services programs than early education programs.” In the 2018 budget year, LOFT officials determined that 19 different early childhood programs were funded through five state agencies in Oklahoma at a cost of $1.6 billion. Just 31 percent of that total was allocated for education initiatives.

Among other things, the LOFT report recommended that the Oklahoma State Department of Education “conduct, or contract with a research institution to conduct, a performance evaluation of the State’s entire universal pre-K program to determine the program’s impact on academic success for students and return on investment for the State.”