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Business, civic groups, early childhood education advocates back Fallin decision on Obama grant

By Patrick B. McGuigan
Executive Editor

The decision to seek up to $60 million in grants from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge has been greeted ambivalently by traditional allies of Governor Mary Fallin and Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

Still, a range of political, business and civic leaders have cheered the grant application decision, which Fallin and Barresi, joined by Cabinet Education Secretary Phyllis Hudecki, unveiled in a state Capitol press conference in September.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Gov. Fallin was asked if inclusion of children from a church-supported school at an event touting early education programs indicated a willingness to make private schools and parental choice part of her development of tax-financed early education programs.

She responded, “We are reviewing the requirements of the (federal) grant right now and will be compiling a list of requirements. We will be looking at what can be done in that direction.”

CapitolBeatOK pointed to SoonerPoll results showing that parents among likely voters overwhelmingly prefer to keep their own money in their pockets and take care of their own young children, rather than support more programs.

Asked if she favored government policies that would help parents use their own resources to take care of their own children, the governor responded, “One of my top priorities has been to help Oklahomans keep more of their own money in their own pockets. Lower taxes are one way to do that. Yes, I favor policies in that direction.”

House Speaker Kris Steele, who clashed with Superintendent Barresi over a legislative proposal to shift by two months the cutoff date for children entering Kindergarten and four-year-old programs, nonetheless endorsed the decision.

State Chamber President Fred Morgan supported Gov. Fallin’s description of the early childhood schooling drive as part of her emphasis on economic development.

Other supporters included Gerald Clancy – president of the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and chairman of the Tulsa Metro Chamber – and chamber CEO Michael S. Neal; Carl Edwards, chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and leaders of Oklahoma Champions for Early Opportunities (OKCEO), including Pat Potts of the Potts Family Foundation. Also backing the grant application are executive director Debra Andersen of Smart Start Oklahoma, Business Roundtable President Blake Wade, and Bob Ross of the Inasmuch Foundation.

In conjunction with the Smart Start Oklahoma conference in August, members of the child care industry and other advocates strongly encouraged Fallin and the state government to submit the “Race to the Top” grant. Support for the application was one of several policy proposals forwarded to Fallin by members of the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness (OPSR), a group established in 2003.

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