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Monday, August 18, 2008

Would mandatory preschool in South Dakota rob our kids from being kids?

By Gordon Garnos

AT ISSUE: As it is about the time a second pilot program in Sioux Falls starts for another preschool for four-year-olds, a question arises as it did for the past two legislative sessions in Pierre. Will such pilot projects eventually lead to mandatory preschool classes for four-year-olds in South Dakota? The first such project started last year in the Sioux Falls School District. The one about to start is sponsored by Avera Health.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND: The South Dakota Department of Education has proposed voluntary minimum preschool standards, supported by Governor Mike Rounds, during the past two legislative sessions in Pierre. Both sessions turned down the idea. But the proposal is bound to surface once again when legislators return to Pierre in January 2009. Preschools are found in just about every hamlet in the state. However, I am told, there is no uniformity to what these preschools teach or how it is done.

Opponents are leery about such standards on various fronts. According to Chris Hupke, president of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, "Where we get concerned is when the government starts pushing into an area that is already being serviced by private groups... Businesses, churches and private enterprise are providing the service already."

There is also fear that too often pilot projects by government skulkingly become permanent fixtures, be it in education or whatever. There is also a concern there is going to be a cost to the state, particularly if these minimum volunteer standards become mandatory and the question is then asked that since South Dakota is already hard up when it comes to education, wouldn't using this funding be better in education programs that are already a reality and, of course, short of bucks.

There is also the question of when are we going to let our kids be kids?

DR. RICK MELMER, South Dakota's secretary of education, disagrees. He said the benefits of such minimum standards outweigh any concerns, particularly for at-risk children. At-risk, now there are a couple of words that always pull at one's heart strings, aren't they? But let's face it. We do have such children in South Dakota, whose parents may not be able to afford to pay the way for their kids to attend a preschool program and day care usually isn't so expensive.

Deb Barnett, deputy secretary in Melmer's education department, backs up his support for these standards by noting that 77.5 percent of South Dakota women with children younger that six are working outside the home. This number is either one of the highest or is the highest percentage per capita of any state in the union. This is something that we as South Dakotans shouldn't be very proud of. But that's another issue.

The newspaper in that town near Harrisburg recently editorialized there is nothing to fear about having standards for these preschools. The opinion piece stated, "The state ­ and, more to the point, government at all levels ­ sets standards for all manner of things that aren't mandatory, especially certain types of businesses. Bars, barber shops, massage parlors--they are generally safer thanks to oversight."

IT THEN ASKED, "And when was the last time someone from the state forced you to get a massage?"

Just a minute, please. Bars, barber shops and massage parlors do have several mandatory standards they must follow or get closed down by the state. Cleanliness, or the lack of it, for example. If they have some "voluntary minimum standards" from the state as well, I'm not aware of them.

But we are not talking massage parlors here. We're talking kids and what's best for them.

The theory behind the proposed voluntary standards is that children in at-risk (there's those two words again) situations often don't get an even chance at early learning. They enter kindergarten as much as 18 months behind. Ah! Kindergarten. I wondered when this was going to come on the scene? I just might be wrong, but I was under the impression that kindergarten, also Headstart, were to be for those kids preparing for the next 12 or so years in school.

STATE OFFICIALS claim they have the results of studies proving the importance of getting three and four-year-olds into an academic setting. At the same time, Erik Hanushek, a Stanford University researcher hired by the state as a witness in the upcoming school-aid trial, counters this. He said that while studies show preschool reduces crime and prison populations, it has little effect on education, adding the research in this area doesn't yet support public policy changes.

So the argument will now, more than likely, drift into the next legislative session with what I understand doesn't have much of a chance again in its third time around. Both sides have some good arguments and while these adult pros and cons go round-and-round, can we all agree on one thing; how terribly important it is to not rob our kids from being kids....

Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion and recently retired after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.


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