Monday, November 19, 2007

We're # 1

When it comes to early childhood education, Oklahoma is a national leader.

No, I'm not talking about our state's well-known efforts to put 4-year-olds (and now 3-year-olds) in preschool daycare. I'm talking about our efforts to empower the most important early childhood educator: mom.

On March 24 the Associated Press reported on "what could be a trendsetting state tax break for families" -- giving Oklahoma's stay-at-home moms a credit on the family income-tax bill. "At this point, we're not aware of other states with laws like this one," said a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Though the $50 tax credit is tiny, at least it's a start. Bryce Christensen, author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America, said Oklahoma policymakers "deserve high praise" for this trailblazing tax break, which Speaker Lance Cargill pushed through and Gov. Brad Henry signed into law this year.

"Researchers have now amassed a mountain of evidence showing that young children are far better off if cared for by an at-home parent rather than the employees of a daycare center," Christensen said. "So wise policymakers will help -- not penalize -- families who make sacrifices to keep one parent at home."

In 2008, policymakers should help these families even more.

In a pro-daycare column on March 23, Gov. Henry made a rather startling admission. Before saying that daycare is a necessity for many parents in today's society, he paid the perfunctory lip service to at-home parents, but he laid it on surprisingly thick: "Obviously," he said, "it's always best when children can stay home with a parent ..."



Well, if the governor really means that, here's a way public policy can help make it happen. In their new book The Natural Family: A Manifesto, Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero recommend that "state subsidies and credits for day care also should be available to parents who care for their preschoolers full-time, at home. A tax credit for this purpose should be refundable to those parents without the income to claim the full credit, allowing for a reduction in means-tested government daycare subsidies."

There couldn't be a better time for such a policy, given our state's well-publicized daycare woes. Many Oklahomans, no longer limited to worrying about the run-of-the-mill problems of daycare kids (Logan has another ear infection, Kaitlyn is downcast and distressed, Dylan has new bite marks, Hailey's teacher is a felon), are now having to worry about simply keeping the little buggers alive.

A large, refundable tax credit would solve a lot of these problems. And it would be popular: Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates found in 2004 that when Oklahoma mothers were asked which they thought was more important for public policy to encourage, only 26 percent chose "making quality child care more affordable for working families," while 70 percent chose "making it easier for one parent to stay at home."

So let's help our most important early childhood educators, and further solidify our status as a national leader.