Legislation enabling local communities to plan voluntary
standards-based pre-k programs for children coming from low income families
passed an initial test Thursday, winning approval from the Senate Education
Committee on a 4-2 vote.
Sen. Tom Dempster, R-Sioux Falls,
pitched SB 191, stressing its voluntary nature while articulating the need and
value for increased access to high quality pre-k programs.
More than 1,500 South
Dakota children are currently on a waiting list to
join federally funded pre-k programs – a fact that Sen. Dempster said creates
early academic divides and will eventually lead to more stress on the state’s
budgetary commitments to social assistance programs.
A parade of proponents – including ASBSD, state agencies, public
and private pre-k providers, pre-k teachers and parents – urged lawmakers to
support the measure, praising pre-k programming for its benefits on early
learning. They also tried to head-off anticipated attacks against the plan by
highlighting cooperation with private pre-k providers and steadfastly declaring
pre-k programs as voluntary.
“There is no state in the nation that has, or has
contemplated, mandatory pre-k,” said Greg Boris, a pre-k policy expert with
South Dakota Voices for Children.
The measure drew familiar opposition from Concerned Women
and the Family Policy Counsel, who have rallied against similar measures in the
past. Detractors painted the legislation as deceptive, anti-family,
budget-busting and mandatory.
Following nearly an hour of committee testimony, legislators
entered briefly debated the legislation.
Sen. Russell Olson, R-Madison, opposed the plan, telling
committee members that the he believes students belong with their parents until
they enter kindergarten.
“In a perfect world, I would agree with you,” Sen. Ben
Nesselhuf, D-Vermillion, said, responding to the Madison lawmaker’s statement. “But we live in
far less than that.”
The measure moves to the Senate next.