Johnson: When it comes to funding preschools, ignorance is bliss

Ignorance is bliss.

I learned that this past week when I heard a radio interview on early childhood education featuring South Dakota Speaker of the House Rep. Steve Haugaard, R-District 10.

The topic was about providing preschool for more South Dakota children. This past year, the Legislature killed a bill that simply would have created an early learning advisory council. We are one of only two states without a council.

Haugaard, a Sioux Falls attorney, said the primary reason the council wasn’t formed is because if it did not exist, it couldn’t produce a report suggesting the state help fund preschool. Consequently, the Legislature wouldn’t have to talk about possibly creating and funding preschool.

That’s like deciding not to create a Flood Advisory Task Force because it would tell the Legislature that it is going to flood next spring. Consequently, the state would not have to budget to repair damaged roads and other infrastructure.

If we remain ignorant of a problem, then there is no problem, so Haugaard’s thought seems to go.

It is leadership like Haugaard’s that has put us in the dubious position of being one of four states that do not fund pre-K education. Wyoming, New Hampshire and Idaho are the others.

“It’s a final four of sorts, but it has nothing do with basketball,” a Feb. 10, 2019, Idaho Statesman story said of the position the four states have.

Montana, which was a holdout until recently, earmarked $3 million in state funding and the feds kicked in $4.2 million. In the first-year of its pilot program, students “showed a 21 percent overall increase in school readiness,” the story said.

Haugaard said he does not believe government should be involved in early education and that it is a parental decision whether to put their children in preschool. The private sector should be the answer, he said.

The problem is that poorer families cannot afford to send their children to private preschool. In South Dakota about 20 percent of young children live below the poverty line. Nearly 75 percent live in households where both parents work.

“Children in low-income families often are exposed to more adverse early childhood experiences and environmental factors that delay or compromise their development and place them at a disadvantage for healthy growth and school readiness,” read a report on early childhood education by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Haugaard dismissed the many studies that show students who attend preschool have a long-term advantage over those who do not. He dismissed the authors as biased and said the studies are inaccurate or outdated. He then picked one 2014 study that he said showed there was no difference in the academic achievement of students after first grade.

“I think the benefit of preschool right now is very limited,” he said in the interview.

That’s at odds with former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., who in November 2016 said, “High-quality early education gives children the strong start they need to succeed in kindergarten. All of our children — regardless of socioeconomic status, race, language spoken at home, disability or zip code — deserve the kind of high-quality early learning that will prepare them to thrive in school and beyond.”

But Haugaard and other legislators are content that more than half of our state’s 3-to-5-year-olds are not in preschool.

A report on early learning by the South Dakota Department of Education revealed about 3,425 students out of about 12,500 are in school-sponsored preschools. These districts are using a combination of public and private money. Funding, space and staffing were listed as the primary barriers to expanding preschools.

Those surveyed were offered an opportunity to comment.

“It is a huge part of educating students so that they are successful,” one respondent said. “It is hard to understand why this has been put on the back burner.”

A variety of groups are working to expand access to preschool in South Dakota, and they are making progress. But they should not expect help from our Legislature while brilliant people like Haugaard are in powerful positions.