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Pre-K bill finds lots of support: Some want to ensure it’s not a gateway to vouchers

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Roosevelt Elementary kindergarten teacher Lexi Steiner, right, works with Mila Perez on Tuesday afternoon in her classroom. Senate Bill 2151 would provide $6 million to pre-kindergarten education.

BISMARCK – Legislation that would provide state funding to expand early childhood education in North Dakota drew plenty of support during its first hearing Tuesday, but leaders of two education groups also said they want to ensure it’s not a gateway to vouchers for private schools.

The $6 million in Senate Bill 2151 would cover about half the cost of pre-kindergarten education for an estimated 6,000 children through annual grants of $1,000 per student starting in the 2016-17 school year, said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo.

Flakoll, testifying before the Senate Education Committee he chairs, stressed that the grants would follow children to both public and private preschool providers, and that parents would have the choice whether to enroll their kids. He said it would allow “a seamless transition” to the all-day kindergarten launched with state funding in 2010-11.

“This bill is about kids and families,” he said. “We’re really trying to provide these opportunities when they’re ready to learn, because they’re sponges at an early age.”

More than a dozen people testified in favor of the bill in the standing-room-only Missouri River Room, including Tasha Skogen, who teaches 27 children in the four-day-a-week preschool program started by the New Rockford-Sheyenne School District four years ago.

She said the program teaches basic skills that better prepare children for school, down to simply sitting still in a chair and raising their hands to ask a question.

“I work closely with the kindergarten teachers, and we’ve seen in our testing their scores have gone up because they’re more prepared,” she said after the hearing.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, a retired teacher and bill co-sponsor, offered an amendment that would provide nearly $2.7 million in additional state funds in 2015-2016 for school districts already supporting pre-K programs with local dollars. Seventy-two schools had 1,407 students enrolled in pre-K programs as of Oct. 31, she said.

North Dakota is one of only 10 states that don’t provide state-funded preschool, Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said, testifying in favor of the bill and Heckaman’s amendment. The Legislature stripped pre-K funding from two bills last session, instead giving school districts permission to use local revenues to establish pre-K programs and ordering an interim study of early childhood education.

No one testified against the bill Tuesday, but Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, suggested strengthening it by requiring that the coalitions of providers that must be formed under the bill commit to serving all eligible children to provide “universal access for all our kids.”

“We don’t want anyone turned away,” she said.

Copas also asked that the legislative intent reflect that the bill isn’t an inroad to vouchers for students to attend K-12 private schools, saying superintendents “believe public dollars should stay in public buildings.” North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta also said the union believes early childhood education can “be the great equalizer” that benefits students throughout their academic careers and helps end cycles of poverty, but it doesn’t want the bill to be an entry into a voucher system.

Andy Peterson, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said expanded pre-K programs will take pressure off the day care system and help develop talent for the state’s workforce.

Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, a bill sponsor, said access to pre-K education is particularly important for children from low-income families.

“We know that the achievement gap begins before they begin kindergarten, and this bill is our attempt to close that gap,” she said.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

 

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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