BISMARCK, N.D. - A bill that would provide $2.6 million for early childhood programs narrowly passed the North Dakota Senate on Friday morning.
Debate over House Bill 1356 was lively, with plenty of mention of differing studies of the effectiveness of pre-kindergarten programs in giving students a leg up later in life.
The Senate passed the bill 26-20, with one senator absent. The bill now goes back to the House for consideration of Senate changes.
HB1356 would provide $2.6 million from the Department of Public Instruction budget for the next biennium to serve as a startup for early childhood programs. Individual districts would be capped at $100,000 annually.
Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, explained that the bill received a “do not pass” recommendation in committee. He said there is no guarantee that the money for the bill will remain there, and he said another early childhood education bill, Senate Bill 2229, would be a better way to go.
SB2229 would allow school boards to authorize early childhood education programs and allow them to use local tax revenues, as well as state, federal and private dollars to fund them. The bill has passed both chambers.
However, numerous other senators stood up to urge passage of the bill, including several teachers.
Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, is a high school math teacher. She said some existing programs aren’t hitting the children who need help most.
Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, is a high school English teacher. She said North Dakota is lagging behind other states in support of early childhood education.
“All of the evidence, all of the data, all of the studies show us that they will never catch up,” Poolman said of children who do not receive adequate early childhood education.
Erbele countered that he had found little support in his district for the bill and that few children would take advantage of the program. He said a kindergarten teacher in his district told him the differences between children who attended early childhood education programs and those who did not fade quickly in the kindergarten year.
Sen. John Andrist, R-Crosby, said though he values education, he once read a study that said there was no correlation between the quality of formal education and where a person goes in life.
Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said he would have supported the bill if parents would have had the opportunity to get waivers to take their children to private or religious schools instead of public schools for early childhood education.
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said that while he believes some early childhood education programs are helpful, he thinks strong families are more important. He said more should be done to empower and support families.
“Some of us happen to believe that the best solution is good families, strong parents,” he said.
Several senators poked holes in Wanzek’s argument.
Heckaman said she would love it if all of her students had two loving parents in their home, but many students don’t even have one.
“This is about the children,” she said.
Sen. Phil Murphy,D-Portland, said working on families and parents is a separate issue. A lot of problems could be avoided by giving more children an early boost, he said.
“I’m all for wishful thinking. … I wish the snow wasn’t coming down in the middle of April. But it doesn’t really matter. And I wish our families were as strong as they used to be. But they’re not,” he said.