I had the pleasure recently of serving on a panel with Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. Our topic was how Oklahoma got in the shape it’s in, regarding the youngest Oklahomans – our children — and their future.  The assessment we both reached is that the root cause of many problems in our state, such as generational poverty and high incarceration rates, can be traced to a lack of education or issues surrounding learning.

Young reminded the audience that the student population in schools today doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago. “I have five traditional schools in my legislative district, and probably over half of the students are Hispanic,” the newly re-elected second-term legislator said. Young represents some of the more impoverished zip codes in the state.

During the 2015-16 school year, nearly one-third of the 40,000 students enrolled in Tulsa Public Schools spoke at least one of 79 languages other than English. It is difficult for those learning English as a second language to adapt quickly, and poverty and equity issues often hamper learning skills with many students.

Those with a limited education are less likely to eat nutritious meals, as well as prepare healthy choices for their families.  This often leads to escalated obesity rates. We also need to remember that one-in-four Oklahoma children is food insecure, and nearly one-third (30%) rely on food stamps. We are dead last in the nation for summer feeding programs for school children, reaching just over 6% of the children in the state who would qualify.

food-secure2

When one is hungry, it is difficult to learn.

“There’s a “symbiotic relationship” between education and Oklahoma’s myriad problems,” said Young. “There’s a direct correlation between population areas that have low educational levels and poor health outcomes.”

Also, for one out of 10 Oklahoma children, one or both parents are in prison. This leads to toxic stress levels which impair learning. People with limited education are more likely to commit crimes than are well-educated individuals. Yet the Legislature allocates approximately $20,000 annually to incarcerate a convict, or almost seven times more than the $3,050 appropriated in state aid for each public school student.

In other terms, money Oklahoma taxpayers spend to imprison two inmates each year could pay the salary of one school teacher. If we were able to enhance early childhood education, there would be fewer dollars spent on prisons.

The key to fixing much of this is to provide greater opportunities for learning.  I hope this will be a focus with the 2017 legislature. Thanks to Mike Ray, the House of Representatives Democratic caucus media director, for helping document our discussion and to the KIDS COUNT data book for providing many of the statistics used.

For a further look at what’s happening at OICA check out our blog or visit ourKIDS COUNT data center

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