A squabble in the South Dakota legislature over a proposed pre-kindergarten study might not sound like a religious issue, but it is.
It’s also about bias and ignorance.
On Feb. 20, the state House’s GOP-led State Affairs Committee voted 9-2 to kill a Democratic bill (HB 1175) that only sought to create an Early Learning Advisory Council, which, according to a Forum News Service news report in Mitchell, South Dakota’s The Daily Republic, was envisioned to “collect data on the current landscape of early childhood education in the state.”
“Specifically,” the reported explained, “it would identify populations which do not have equal access to pre-K because of factors like geographic isolation or socioeconomic barriers, and identify potential additional funding sources for preschool programs.”
The headline on the story — “South Dakota lawmakers kill bill to study pre-K, cite ‘socialist agenda.’” — reveals the political component of the issue. Republican lawmakers fear a simple study of how to improve access and potential funding for the state’s pre-K children is actually the skinny edge of a subversive wedge to slide “socialism” into state education.
Note that as early childhood education grows in importance as a key contributor to ultimate life success in America, kindergarten is no longer the first rung on the ladder of a person’s public life. Now it’s preschool — and South Dakota is one of only seven states that don’t offer public pre-K funding.
The religious component in the pre-K discussion is the reality that, currently, private religious funding is virtually the only financing available for South Dakota pre-K programs, except for some federal funding for eligible low-income kids (e.g., Head Start, which is first-come, first-served, and funding is limited), particularly in Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city. In 2016, some 160 kids were on Head Start pre-K wait lists in the Sioux Falls area.
Hope Coalition, a Christian evangelical organization, was one of nine Sioux Falls nonprofits who received some of $200,000 in local United Way funding 2019, according to a United Way report. Hope Coalition collaborates with churches, businesses ad other nonprofits to place an anticipated 100 low-income children in church-based pre-K religious schools this year.
Doing research into this issue a couple of years ago, I twice emailed some questions to one of the founders of Hope Coalition, including asking him whether his organization would fund enrollments in secular pre-K programs for kids whose parents were either nonreligious or non-Christian.
The co-founder did not respond.
Equitable pre-K accessibility is an appropriate issue to spotlight in South Dakota, because in the state’s biggest metro area, where pre-K program availability logically should be most pronounced, the options are almost exclusively faith-based programs or expensive private schools.
Complicating this scenario, it appears churches are the main creators of preschools statewide, so minus available federally funded Head Start slots, where might South Dakota’s underprivileged preschoolers of faith-averse parents go?
In addition, local government leaders have heartily endorsed the Hope Coalition pre-K program, offered at several church schools. Bill Mahr, then superintendent of Sioux Falls schools, in 2017 lauded the organization:
“These folks have truly provided this community with hope.”
The constitutionality seems suspect of government officials endorsing a program that is only offered by a Christian organization and conceivably offers Christian indoctrination in its church-based pre-K programs.
Another arguably unconstitutional government endorsement is the Partners in Education Tax Credit Program, created by the South Dakota Legislature in 2016 (under Senate Bill 159) to allow only insurance companies (for some reason) to provide funding for eligible students to attend primary and secondary nonpublic schools in South Dakota. Of note in the context of this article, all of the 41 schools partnering in the program are Christian institutions. Lawmakers nonetheless in 2017 rejected a bill calling for greater transparency in the program.
Which brings us to the current kerfuffle in the Legislature, which seems more intent on blocking an invented invasion into the state by the bogeyman of “socialism” than simply investigating ways to provide broader pre-K opportunities for South Dakota children.
“This is a South Dakota solution to a problem that desperately needs attention,” warned the bill’s sponsor, House Minority Whip Rep. Erin Healy, a Sioux Falls democrat, before the party-line vote roundly dismissed her concerns.
Instilling ‘morals and intelligence’?
The Forum News Service article said Republican House Speaker Rep. Steven Haugaard of Sioux Falls, while acknowledging he understood the enormous benefits of pre-K programs to students, still insisted that publicly funded statewide preschool would represent “a transformational approach to instilling more of a socialist agenda into the system.”
Rep. Haugaard went on to contend, curiously, that although he knows research shows preschool can augment future workforce development, that’s not the goal of education. He insisted the goal was instead to “instill morals and intelligence” in students.
The upshot of all this is, if public pre-K funding is blocked in the state as the legislature desires, the status quo will remain — only rich kids or Christian kids can partake in private programs, or kids of non-Christian parents who have no other choice but to accept religious indoctrination as the price of admission.
Preschool ed for families only?
Hidebound conservative attitudes are a large part of the resistance to publicly funded pre-K programs. For example, House Majority Whip Jon Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) believes early childhood education should be the domain of families rather than schools. He says he understands parents may not have enough time to educate their pre-K children at home, but that,
“I’m not ready to push our state in a direction away from that and toward more government education.”
Public funding is not socialism
Government education? Publicly funded education, like public schooling, is not “government education.” It’s a mechanism to provide the broadest education possible to all children, and with pre-K programs growing more and more critical to kids’ development, it’s an important discussion to have.
In any event, the opposition’s dream of parents educating their preschoolers exclusively at home is just that, a dream. The South Dakota Head Start Association “estimates that 74 percent of the state’s children 6 or under have all available parents in the labor force.”
So, how exactly is it helping kids to oppose just studying how to expand pre-K access in our state?
It’s not. But it is helping misinformed, reactionary legislators feel less fearful about a fictional political bogyman: “socialism.” Yet, publicly funded preschool is no more “socialism” than regular, publicly funded K-12 public school.
Let’s not sacrifice children’s development on the altar of paranoid conservatism. Or of religious compulsion.
Think of how much pre-K access the $5.7 billion would buy instead of an extravagantly unnecessary wall the president demands on our southern border?
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