Former governor and wife honored as “champs for children,” early childhood policies advocated at Smart Start conference
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Published: 23-Aug-2011

Former Governor Brad Henry and his wife Kim were recently honored at the First Annual Smart Start Oklahoma Conference in downtown Oklahoma City. 

The pair were praised as “Champions for Children” at the event, which included a variety of speakers who focused on challenges facing the Sooner State in an era of tight revenues.

Oklahoma is known for establishing one of the most expansive pre-kindergarten programs in America. The programs were established with support from the Oklahoma Business Roundtable and members of the Tulsa and Oklahoma City Chambers of Commerce, as well as the State Chamber. 

Bob Harbison, a leading proponent in the area, presented the former chief executive and his wife, both Democrats, with honors. Harbison recalled their leadership of the issue during two terms at the governor’s mansion.

Mrs. Henry, who now runs a charitable organization in Norman, thanked the crowd and praised the state’s “incredible program, which we’re proud to promote nationwide.” She thanked the Potts family (Pat and Ray) for their roles in establishing and maintaining public support for the program.

Former Gov. Henry, an attorney practicing in Edmond, said, “It means so much to be honored by those who do the work you do.” Referencing the advocacy of his wife, Henry quipped that when he ran the state, “I didn’t name a secretary of education because I was sleeping with my secretary of ed.” Oklahoma “needs to keep the ball moving down the field. We want to keep up the momentum,” he asserted.

He pointed to a bipartisan legislative majority that worked with him to establish the state’s four-year old program, and gently encouraged his successor to apply for federal resources to continue expanding services for children from birth to ages three. He said, “It would be a shame for Oklahoma – a leader in the nation and really in the world – if Oklahoma does not apply for one of the early childhood grants. It’s a natural fit for our state.”

The former governor observed that the state has passed “good reforms recently,” but said he thought some advanced “in a bit of a vacuum. We have to address the underlying issues. Brains are hard-wired by age of five.” 

Barry Downing, a national leader in early childhood efforts from the neighboring state of Kansas, delivered a broad overview of progress for early childhood efforts in his state and around the nation. He made his case by pointing to rapid transformations of global economics and information.

He observed that that the world’s number one English-speaking nation is now China. He reflected, “If Facebook were a county, it would be the third largest nation in the world.” He pointed to a Wichita State University study that points to positive outcomes from early education programs in Kansas. 

Downing asked the audience to “personalize the data, and to see the face and faces of those who benefit.” He encouraged the audience with these words: “Each of you can make the case for business reasons to support early childhood education.” He continued, “Many battles have been won. Each month, more people are starting to understand the case for early childhood education.” As for Oklahoma, he said, “I urge you not to wait” in pressing for further early education programs.

A panel discussion at the conference included Ken Levit of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Republican state Rep. Randy McDaniel of Oklahoma City, Democratic state Sen. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma City, Martha Burger of the Chesapeake Energy Corporation and Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce Dave Lopez.

Levit pointed to the role of philanthropy in pressing for programs like Oklahoma’s. He argued, however, “It’s not enough just to advance this in the private sector. The conversation must turn to the public sector.”

Rep. McDaniel said, “We need to do better, we must do better, we can do better.” However, he cautioned, “Remember, education is already the largest portion of the state budget. If we can get public pensions under control, we’ll then have resources to deal with other issues."

Sen. Rice saluted business interests which have supported early childhood education. He said many businesses have told him good child care is an essential need for parents who are also workers. 

Burger said an “absolute number one priority for young parents is child care.” Chesapeake Energy Corporation now has an onsite early childhood care center serving some 300 children. At one point she said, “the case doesn’t need to be made any more” for the necessity of such programs.
 
Rice said when it comes to budget priorities and policy development, “I see much of the challenge is in the people who vote for us. From the people, we get very mixed signals on spending.” He noted often stark differences in life opportunities for children at school sites separated only by a few blocks, including Edgemere and Wilson schools in his MidCity state Senate district. 

Also at the conference, David Blatt and Gene Perry of the Oklahoma Policy Institute presented an overview of taxpayer-funded services presently available for education, health services and in meeting other needs of children in the state. Lisa Klein of the Birth to Five Policy Alliance also spoke at the event, held at Oklahoma City’s Sheraton Hotel last week.

State Treasurer Ken Miller extended official greets at the event on behalf of Gov. Mary Fallin, his fellow Republican. She was in New York City seeking to recruit new businesses to come to Oklahoma. 

The day of information and advocacy concluded with an open meeting at which representatives of the child care industry supported several recommendations supporters of expanded early childhood education are likely to send to Gov. Fallin on August 31.
 
Wrapping up the busy day was a board meeting for the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness.

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