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     Paying for education: “Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.” – Claus Moser, British scientist

When state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke sponsored a bill this legislative session to establish an Early Learning Advisory Council, former Sen. Tom Dempster immediately came to mind.

Dempster, of Sioux Falls, was a persuasive voice for early learning and was pushing hard for pre-kindergarten legislation back in 2009. It didn’t happen.

Even though Sutton is a Democrat who also seeks to be governor and Dempster is a Republican, the concern about young kids in South Dakota and how to ensure they get a solid start crosses party lines.

After all, who could be against doing whatever we can to help children find a solid footing early in life?

Last year Sutton tried to garner support for an early childhood education pilot program, but the bill was killed in committee.

Sutton’s bill will face some strong headwinds this year, too, and not just because of the projected revenue shortfall for the state. The bill was to be heard in committee earlier this week so as this was written on Feb. 16, I couldn’t predict the outcome. Regardless, some of the same arguments against expanding our education system will be heard, including:

— Where will the money come from? Do South Dakotans want to raise taxes, again, to fund a new education program? Or if not, which program will be cut so a new program can be funded?

— Isn’t it the job of parents to raise and teach their children during the pre-kindergarten years?

Lately, another point is being raised by those questioning early learning plans and it challenges some of the research that said those programs not only brought participants up to speed, but kept them there as they progressed through the K-12 years.

A study by the Reason Foundation in California indicated that the gains enjoyed early on by children do not last over time. More recently, a study by Vanderbilt University professor Dale Farran argues that it is premature to conclude that pre-K programs improve achievement later on by low-income students.

“The idea that a year of pre-K can close the achievement gap for at-risk children is appealing to policymakers,” said Farran, “but this kind of magical thinking doesn’t benefit children.”

South Dakota’s neediest children – about 4,300 of them – are helped by Head Start, a federal program, but advocates of bills like Dempster’s and Sutton’s contend that more needs to be done.

Which brings the argument back to square one: Who pays?

This issue, like some others, proves that reasonable people can disagree. But that shouldn’t stop the search for solutions.

Feb. 21, 2018