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North Dakota House approves funding for early childhood education

BISMARCK-After a 45-minute debate sprinkled with references to TV mom June Cleaver and "cradle-to-grave socialism," House lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday to provide state funding for early childhood education, with half of the funding the Senat...

Rep. Cynthia Schreiber Beck

BISMARCK-After a 45-minute debate sprinkled with references to TV mom June Cleaver and "cradle-to-grave socialism," House lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday to provide state funding for early childhood education, with half of the funding the Senate had approved.

House lawmakers voted 51-40 to approve Senate Bill 2151. The bill now goes back to the Senate, which can either concur with the House changes or request a conference committee to work out difference between the two versions.

The bill approved by the Senate 33-14 in February set aside $6 million for grants to public and private providers to help cover the cost of preschool for an estimated 6,000 children in 2016-17.

The House reduced the appropriation to $3 million and tightened eligibility requirements, proposing grants of $2,000 or $1,000 only to those children who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals under the federal school lunch program. At an average grant of $1,500, the $3 million would support early childhood education for 2,000 children.

Providers wishing to participate would have to apply to the Department of Commerce for a grant.


During Wednesday's debate, Rep. Cynthia Schreiber Beck, R-Wahpeton, said the bill would allow more families to enroll their children in pre-kindergarten programs that have been shown to promote brain development, lifelong learning ability and social skills needed later in school.

Nearly 78 percent of North Dakota children ages 0-13 lived in situations with all parents in the workforce in 2012, she said, citing North Dakota Kids Count statistics.

"Sad to say, but the June Cleaver days have faded. It is unlikely that June would be home caring for Beaver today," she said.

Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, who carried the bipartisan bill and co-sponsored it, stressed that enrollment in early childhood education programs will remain voluntary.

"This doesn't force anything. It still puts that decision in the parents' hands," he said.

Another Bismarck Republican challenged what he called "pseudo-scientific statistics" and referred to other studies that have shown the benefits of pre-K education fade by the third grade.

"Pre-K, although frequently a wonderful option, is not benefiting disadvantaged children in a meaningful or long-lasting manner as a means of leveling the playing field," Rep. Rick Becker said.

Other opponents raised concerns about taking kids out of the home and putting them in a structured environment too early, and that the program would become mandatory, though supporters said that won't happen.


Rep. Matthew Klein, R-Minot, called the bill "another step from the cradle-to-grave socialism."

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, opposed the idea of tying the grants to school lunch program eligibility.

"I think that's the wrong way to incentivize this program and to push people to accepting subsidized meals," he said.

The chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, reminded lawmakers that the bill arose from an interim legislative study, which found that fewer than 30 percent of North Dakota school districts operate an approved early childhood education classroom, and classes weren't available in 21 of the state's 53 counties.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler also had supported the bill, testifying that North Dakota is one of only 10 states that don't provide state-funded preschool and that only 36 percent of the state's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in an early childhood care or education program, ranking fifth-lowest in the nation.

State lawmakers stripped funding for pre-K education from two bipartisan bills during the 2013 session, instead authorizing school districts to use local tax revenues to establish pre-K programs. Nathe, who co-sponsored SB2151, said the number of districts with early childhood education programs has doubled since then.

"The people of North Dakota, the communities of North Dakota, are asking for this," he said.


Rep. Rick Becker

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