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Column: Oklahoma could stop failing its children, if leaders would start investing in them

All children need safe, stable, nurturing environments with adequate access to health services and educational opportunities. However, a new report shows that too many Oklahoma children and their families lack access and resources to thrive.

Analyzing publicly available data from nonpartisan agencies, the recently released 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book indicates that when it comes to child well-being, Oklahoma remains in the bottom 10 of all 50 states.

This year, Oklahoma ranked 40th overall, 32nd in economic well-being, 41st in family and community context, 42nd in health, and 45th in education. (State and county level data can be found by visiting the interactive data maps at the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s website at okpolicy.org/KIDS-COUNT.)

With children back in school this month, the quality of education is likely on many family’s minds. Improving educational outcomes will take a commitment from decision makers to invest in our public schools.

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But student success doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Improving child well-being also requires investing in the supports that surround families and their children. Without dealing with these foundational issues, it will be significantly harder for students to stay on track and thrive in school and beyond.

As the KIDS COUNT Data Book clearly shows, Oklahoma students are more likely to be living in poverty, experiencing trauma and living with health challenges than children in nearly all other states.

Fully funded public education would help provide all students with access to resources and services they need for long-term success regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

However, the odds will remain stacked against many Oklahoma children unless the state meaningfully invests in all of the areas that impact child well-being: health, economic stability, family support and community. Without holistically addressing these issues, Oklahoma will remain firmly entrenched among the bottom 10 states for education.

What’s frustrating is that this is nothing new for our children.

Oklahoma has been firmly lodged in the bottom 15 states for child well-being since 2005. We have numerous, evidence-based policy solutions that elected officials and policymakers could use to finally reverse course on these rankings.

Furthermore, Oklahoma has a historic amount in state savings that should be invested directly back into our children and families. What exact actions could state leaders make to improve these rankings and the lives of children across the state?

We can fully fund our public schools, meaning schools have enough funding to purchase curriculum and supplies, maintain buildings, adequately support special education, provide robust extracurricular programming, and pay staff a competitive wage.

We can strengthen the social safety net to support children and families in times of struggle and to lift them out of hardship. We can provide affordable health care coverage and expand pregnancy and postpartum coverage so that children can start off healthy and on the right track.

Lastly, we can provide targeted tax relief to low-income families who need help the most, without robbing our state revenue of the ability to pay for the core services that we all rely on.

My dream is to live in a state where all of us are happy, healthy, educated, and have the resources we need to succeed available to us. In doing so, Oklahoma would no longer be a state that needs to incentivize businesses to come here. Instead, businesses would eagerly want to locate here because the state invests in our residents’ success and quality of life.

Investing in children’s success today will pay dividends in the years to come. Children who grow up thriving will be better positioned to be contributing community members.

But as it stands now, we’re failing this generation and making it staggeringly difficult to reach their full potential. If we, as a state, cannot dedicate meaningful investments in them now, then we’re setting us all up for future failure.

Gabrielle Jacobi is the Child Well-being Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Coordinator for the Oklahoma Policy Institute.