The importance of quality early childhood care and education (ECCE) is increasingly visible across the country. ECCE affects children’s growth and development, families’ ability to work, and the future health of society. This has inspired federal support for states to create extensive, multi-year plans to serve children and families more effectively. Though the quality and availability of ECCE have become priorities for many states, there are still gaps in how children and families access programs and the resources they provide.
Oklahoma is a national leader in ECCE and is working to illuminate and address unmet need through OKFutures. This paper provides a comprehensive assessment of need across the ECCE mixed delivery system with a focus on programs that directly provide ECCE: universal prekindergarten, Head Start and Early Head Start, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start and Early Head Start, Early Head Start–Child Care Partnerships, Educare, Oklahoma child care, and tribal child care.
Oklahoma is home to more than 317,000 children, ages birth to 5. These children are diverse in race, ethnicity, economic status, immigrant status, and language proficiency. The following figures help characterize the complex populations being served across the state:
- Nearly 20 percent of young children in Oklahoma identify as Hispanic, and about 8 percent of children are American Indian or Alaska Native. Fifty-three percent of young children are white, 7 percent are black, 11 percent identify with more than one or some other race, and 2 percent are Asian.
- Nearly half of Oklahoma’s young children come from families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Around one in five children younger than 6 lives in poverty (earning below 100 percent of the federal poverty level).
- Given the working patterns of Oklahoma families, more than two-thirds of young children are likely to need child care, and nearly 22,000 children are likely to need care during nontraditional hours.
- Thirty-four percent of Oklahoma’s young children live in rural areas.
- Children in Oklahoma are more likely than children in the United States as a whole to have a disability. Of children with a disability, one-third live in poverty in Oklahoma versus 30.9 percent nationwide.
Identifying Gaps in Service
Oklahoma has invested in universal prekindergarten, the Oklahoma Early Childhood Program, and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, but gaps in service for young children persist. Data suggest the factors driving these gaps are affordability and capacity of ECCE programs. Key findings include the following:
- About 140,000 children in Oklahoma—53 percent of all young children not yet old enough for kindergarten—may be served by universal prekindergarten, Head Start and Early Head Start, AIAN Head Start and Early Head Start, or a licensed child care provider.
- Nearly 124,000 children in Oklahoma not yet eligible for kindergarten are not served by one of the three primary ECCE programs. Some of these children may not need care, while others are on waiting lists or would make use of care if openings were available.
- Among low-income children, black and white children are more likely to receive child care subsidies than their peers, with 27 and 19 percent of eligible children receiving subsidies, respectively. Less than 10 percent of eligible Hispanic, Asian, and Native American children receive subsidies.
- Native American children have the highest enrollment rate in universal prekindergarten, followed by Asian children. Black children have the lowest rate of prekindergarten enrollment.
- Fifty-five percent of Oklahomans live in census tracts that either lack any child care options or have so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.
- Unmet need for health and family supports, especially in rural areas and for vulnerable children and families, can pose challenges to children’s success in ECCE and beyond.
Findings from the OKFutures needs assessment motivate a set of working goals and action areas for Oklahoma, including the following:
- Align systems of care to produce more seamless, high-quality, data-driven, and cost-effective services for families with young children
- Secure affordable, quality ECCE for children from birth to age 3
- Boost choices families have for culturally responsive care and services that support parents’ ability to work and family well-being
- Prioritize the urgent health and mental health needs of young children and their families
- Communicate better with families about how to support the development and well-being of their children