North Dakota GOP bill all but guarantees state’s first-ever preschool program

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by Félix Pérez

North Dakota is all but guaranteed next year to become the latest state in the nation to offer state-funded preschool to 4-year-olds, thanks to a bill sponsored by the Republican chairmen of the state’s Senate and House education committees and supported by educators and the state superintendent.

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An estimated 6,000 children will benefit from the legislation, which was announced this month by Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, chairman of the House Education Committee. They were joined by Kirsten Baesler, state Superintendent for Public Instruction.

“This will happen, and there no question it’s good for students,” said Bismarck teacher Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, an organization of more than 10,000 K-12, higher education and public employees. “It is a baby step, but big ideas can start in small places.”

Archuleta’s “baby step” reference is to the state’s enactment of a law in 2011 requiring all school districts to provide a minimum half-day kindergarten. Presently, said Archuleta, 95 percent of all eligible children attend full-day kindergarten.

The early education bill would provide $1,000 for each eligible child, which would cover roughly half the cost. A child who is eligible for free and reduced-price lunches would receive $1,500. Only 36 percent of North Dakota’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in an early childhood care or education program, said Superintendent Baesler.

Flakoll said the program’s $6 million in funding would be available effective July 1, 2016.

Archuleta said “the timing for the program is very good.” He pointed to the state’s healthy revenue stream, fueled by its technology, agriculture and oil sectors.

North Dakota United commends these lawmakers for making early childhood education widely available to the children of North Dakota,” said Archuleta.  “The investment in early childhood education we make today will pay dividends for North Dakotans well into the future.”

The push for early education in North Dakota comes on the heels of a pledge by President Barack Obama to expand early education for tens of thousands of children. President Obama announced this month $1 billion in public-private spending on programs for young learners. Nationwide, 28 percent of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program last year.

The North Dakota Legislature convenes for an 80-day session beginning January 6.

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