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GOP lawmakers announce $6 million plan to fund N.D. preschool education

North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler speaks at a news conference in Bismarck on Tuesday, Dec. 2. Photo courtesy of state Dept. of Public Instruction.

BISMARCK – After their party was criticized last session for not providing state funding for preschool programs, several Republican lawmakers joined the state’s top education official Tuesday in announcing a $6 million plan to fund early childhood education for 4-year-olds.

The state funding would cover about half the cost of pre-kindergarten education for an estimated 6,000 children through annual grants of $1,000 per student, said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Parents would have the choice whether to enroll their children.

North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota are among the 10 states that don’t provide state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Minnesota spent about $13.8 million in state funds on pre-K education in the 2012-13 school year, the institute reported.

Only 36 percent of North Dakota’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in an early childhood care or education program, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said.

“That ranks the fifth lowest in the nation. We as a state can do better than that,” she said.  

Early childhood education encourages brain development and also builds the emotional and social skills children need in schools, Baesler said, citing research findings that 85 percent of a child’s brain development happens before the age of 5.

Baesler said state funding will allow some providers to expand into pre-K education and, for those that already offer it, could result in reduced rates for parents. The grant amount would increase to $1,500 for children eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Flakoll said it also will allow more parents to enter the workforce or increase their hours from part-time to full-time, helping to fill the state’s more than 25,000 job openings.

Under the legislation, communities would have to organize coalitions of early childhood education providers, both public and private. A governing body would be formed and would certify which providers are eligible to apply for the state grants.

State funding would begin July 1, 2016, giving school districts and providers adequate time to develop programs, Flakoll said.

“This will allow a seamless transition from this program into our all-day kindergarten program,” he said.

Bipartisan bills introduced in the House and Senate in 2013 would have provided up to $5 million annually for early childhood education grants to school districts. The House Education Committee stripped the funding from both bills but amended them to allow school districts to use local tax revenues to establish early childhood education programs, which they couldn’t previously do.

Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he believes lawmakers will be more receptive to funding such programs when the regular session begins Jan. 6, in part because of the public-private partnership piece.

The 2013 Legislature also ordered a comprehensive study of early childhood education in the state, including the cost of services and projected needs, which “has really given us a roadmap,” Nathe said.

“I think last session we didn’t have enough information to really make some changes,” he said.

Democrats criticized the Republican majority after last session for not funding pre-K education. Several Democratic lawmakers attended Tuesday’s press conference but weren’t part of the announcement.

Sen. Phil Murphy, D-Portland, a retired teacher who pushed last session for school districts to be able to use local tax dollars to fund early childhood education, said he expects Democrats will support the proposal announced Tuesday.

“I’m really glad the other party is coming around,” he said.

Sixty-five North Dakota school districts had early childhood education programs as of Aug. 1, but 21 of the state’s 53 counties still have no such programs, Baesler said. She hopes state funding will spur development of more programs.

Along with Flakoll and Nathe, the legislation’s other sponsors are Sen. Nicole Poolman and Rep. Mark Dosch, both Bismarck Republicans. Flakoll said he hopes to add more sponsors.

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.