South Dakota lawmakers kill bill to study pre-k, fearing statewide program and 'socialist agenda'

PIERRE, S.D. — Lawmakers have killed a bill that would have established a committee to study South Dakota’s pre-kindergarten programs, citing fears that the bill could lead toward a publicly funded statewide preschool system, and ultimately a “socialist agenda.”

Prime sponsor of the bill and House Minority Whip Rep. Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls, told the House State Affairs committee on Wednesday, Feb. 20, that House Bill 1175 would not establish a new preschool program, but would instead create an Early Learning Advisory Council.

The 12-person, governor-appointed council would collect data on the current landscape of early childhood education in the state. Specifically, it would identify populations which do not have equal access to pre-k because of factors like geographic location or socioeconomic barriers, and identify potential additional funding sources for preschool programs.

“This is a South Dakota solution to a problem that desperately needs attention,” Healy said.

Though the bill did not itself implement any new programs, the majority of committee members said it would move the state toward implementing statewide pre-k. The committee voted along party lines to kill the bill by a 9-2 vote.

House Speaker Rep. Steven Haugaard, R-Sioux Falls, said that he has repeatedly heard of the researched benefits of pre-k education — like reduced rates of incarceration, improved graduation rates and a greater return on investment — but statewide preschool would push South Dakota toward socialism.

“It purports that it’s going to be a tremendous benefit to the state,” Haugaard said. “What it really is is a transformational approach to instilling more of a socialist agenda into the system.”

He went on to say that though research cited by Healy suggests that early education can improve future workforce development, that’s not the goal of public education. Instead, citing the state constitution, he said public education is meant to “instill morals and intelligence” in students.

Other opponents argued that early childhood education is a primary function of families, rather than schools.

House Majority Whip Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, said though he recognizes that not all parents are able to stay home with pre-kindergarten-aged children, he’s “not ready to give up on the parent-child relationship when it comes to educating our own children.”

“I agree there’s a problem. There are economic problems associated with parents having the time necessary to sit down with their kids to teach a lesson,” Hansen said. “But it is possible and I’m not ready to push our state in a direction away from that and toward more government education.”

While he said having a parent at home with young children is something to aspire to, House Minority Leader Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls, said that’s “not the reality” for many South Dakotans.

According to the South Dakota Head Start Association, 74 percent of South Dakota children aged 6 or younger had all available parents in the labor force. That was the second-highest rate of working parents in the nation at the time of the study.

Healy said South Dakota is one of only a handful of states that does not have an Early Learning Council, and without it, the state could be ineligible for some types of federal grant dollars.

She estimated the council would cost the state between $10,000 and $14,000, calling it an “incredibly cost-effective approach to make pre-k education a legislative priority.”

HB 1175 was supported by the Large School Group, United School Association, South Dakota Head Start Association and others.

Legal counsel for the state Board of Education Holly Farris said the board opposed the bill, citing concerns that it would be difficult for the department to make preschools across the state comply with data collection requests.

She also said the department estimated the council would cost more than Healy’s estimate, exceeding $20,000 at least and possibly reaching $40,000. Healy retorted that even at that cost, the department would have enough funds available.