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Politics & Government

Some House committee members skeptical of early childhood education bill

Some members of a North Dakota House committee are questioning whether state money should be invested in early childhood education programs.

A bill that has passed the state Senate would appropriate $4.6 million for grants to local school districts to set up pre-kindergarten programs. Supporters also want to allow local school district to use state and local tax money to support those programs.

State school superintendent Kirsten Baesler asked the House Education Committee to allow districts to use state money that is put into a school district’s general fund for early childhood education. Baesler told the committee the program will pay for itself down the road – as students come into kindergarten and grade school more prepared.

"For example, Mandan middle school may have 100 students for which they're getting an extra weighting factor , because they've been declared 'at risk,'" Baesler told the committee. "If those 100 had attended pre-school, that number of 100 at risk would now be 25. And the state will actually be saving money."

Some school districts had been using federal funds to pay for those programs. Edgeley was one of those. The pre-school teacher – Kelly Just – says the school district will have to lay her off this fall because federal funds are being cut.

"This is devastating for our children," said Just. "Our pre-school program has been able to lay the foundation for knowledge, social skills and confidence for the pre-schoolers. Our program has paved the way for successes in later schooling and later in life."

But some members of the committee don’t like the idea of state dollars going into pre-school programs. The Committee chairman – Rep. Mike Nathe (R-Bismarck) – suggested districts should raise the money locally through the property tax or donations.

"It's just our frustration," said Nathe. "The feds cut the funding, we kill the bill and we're the bad guys. If the feds think it's not important enough to fund, why should we fund it?"

But Rep. Jerry Kelsh (D-Fullerton) said these federal Title IX funds are treated much like the F-MAP (Federal Medicaid Assistance Program) funds, in the the more economically successful North Dakota is, the less federal money it gets.

The committee has not yet taken action on the bill. It is SB 2229.

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