By KATHY TAYLOR
Oklahoma Chief of Education Strategy and Innovation
Oklahoma’s education system has made great strides since the landmark legislation known as 1017. Most recently, Oklahoma was ranked first in the country for our pre-k programs on criteria that included high standards and effectiveness by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Oklahoma is the only state where almost every four year-old can attend a quality pre-K program, according to the report. Governor Henry championed this important step for Oklahoma and it is one that needs to continue.
This is especially so in light of another Oklahoma statistic that isn’t so rosy. Oklahoma leads the nation in the number of women incarcerated per capita. A comprehensive study published in 2004 and commissioned by Oklahoma Senate Joint Resolution 48 co-authored by Senator Debbe Leftwich and Representative Barbara Staggs called our attention to these startling statistics and their impact on Oklahoma children and their education. The vast majority of women incarcerated in Oklahoma are convicted of nonviolent crimes. Tulsa County was second in the nation in the number of women incarcerated during 2009. 68 percent of these females were convicted of nonviolent crimes and the vast majority were mothers.
In the 2004 study, the impact on the children of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women was reviewed. Bad grades was the most frequent problem, but after their mother was sent to prison, their rate of expulsion from school doubled, their dropout rate more than tripled, their rate of arrest increased fourfold, their rate of incarceration was nine times higher (the cycle of intergenerational incarceration is well-documented) and the rate of suicide increased eight times. Almost half of the mothers included in this study were convicted on nonviolent drug offenses.
The 2004 findings clearly suggested that the state should look at alternative sanctions for nonviolent female offenders. The George Kaiser Family Foundation has sponsored a program in Tulsa offered by Family and Children’s Services called the Women in Recovery Program, an alternative program for nonviolent female offenders. It helps women offenders get the assistance they need through a year of intensive treatment, counseling, education and life program skills. Through alternative programs such as this, the state not only saves on prison costs and allows these women the training to contribute to our economy, but helps these women become better parents for their children. Representative Kris Steele has authored a bill this session that would pilot similar alternative programs for nonviolent female offenders. This would expand the opportunity for these women to be given help, treatment and make a positive impact for their kids. Helping mothers makes a positive impact on the kids in our state and their education. Solving the education puzzle is complicated but programs like Women in Recovery are important pieces of the solution.