TULSA, Okla. — Nearly two-thirds of Oklahoma's kids from low-income families were not attending a preschool program from 2009-2011, according to a national study released Monday.
The Kids Count report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates for investing in the crucial early years of a child's life, also found that more than half of Oklahoma's kids from birth to eight years old were living in low-income households last year. The foundation calculated low-income households as those with incomes below 200 percent of the 2012 federal poverty line — $46,566 for a family of four.
The 20-page report underscored Oklahoma's recent troubles in dealing with early childhood issues. In June, the foundation ranked the state 36th in the country for child well-being based on finances, education, health and family and community issues.
The state's Department of Human Services is also undergoing a major overhaul as the result of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit that accused the agency of victimizing foster children by failing to find safe homes for them and inadequately monitoring their safety because employees were overworked and poorly managed.
The so-called Pinnacle Plan is Oklahoma's $153 million blueprint for remaking the system over the next five years.
Monday's report found that between 61 percent and 63 percent of 3-and 4-year-olds living in low-income families were not enrolled in preschool programs in Oklahoma from 2009-2011. The foundation emphasized that attending a high-quality preschool program can significantly contribute to the healthy development of young children, especially those from lower-income homes.
"The children not enrolled in pre-K, when Oklahoma makes pre-K available to every child in the state, that is alarming," said Terry Smith, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, which works with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to compile statewide data. "The critical nature of those years, the brain development, is important.
"Kids that aren't getting that, they're not going to be as successful," Smith said.
While the state has made some strides in investing in early childhood development programs, Smith said the current focus and funding priorities among many Oklahoma lawmakers has been the reform of the child welfare system.
Smith said state child advocates plan to make the case to the Legislature in 2014 to not abandon other programs that are already working for Oklahoma's kids.
"I think they're just trying to put the fire out right now at DHS, but we must continue to invest in early childhood programs," he said.
Republican Sen. AJ Griffin of Guthrie, a former teacher, said there is no "magic bullet" to fixing all of the gaps and shortcomings found in the Kids Count report. She said instead of throwing money at any problems, a balance must be found between support that's already publicly available for kids and the overall health of the family unit.
"Until every child starts school completely ready to perform at their highest potential, then obviously we still have work to do as a society," Griffin said.