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Lloyd Omdahl, Published August 25 2013

Omdahl: 12,000 kids not in school

Around 12,000 North Dakota children who should be in school won’t be there when it opens across the state this month.

This is a regrettable situation because there is no good reason for their absence. The children are actually in the prime years of their learning abilities.

We are talking about pre-kindergarteners who ought to be in preschool education.

Study after study has demonstrated that their attendance would improve not only their school careers but would lead to fewer dropouts, better class behavior, higher test scores, less grade repeating, higher educational attainment, improved IQ, reduced delinquency and better earnings as adults.

With all of these benefits, one would think that the state Legislature would appropriate a few million dollars out of its huge oil receipts to see that the children and society capitalize on these positive outcomes.

Superintendent Kirsten Baesler of the Department of Public Instruction pleaded with the Legislature to provide preschool opportunities for these students.

In testimony to the 2013 Legislature, Baesler pointed out that “the first years of a child’s life builds a foundation of success.”

“We can take advantage of an opportunity to impact a child when they most are eager and ready to learn,” she continued.

With two master’s degrees in education, 22 years in the Bismarck school system and 10 years on the Mandan School Board, Baesler knows what she’s talking about. And she’s not alone.

Rob Grunewald, a former economic analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, noted that “the quality of life for a child and the contribution the child makes to society as an adult can be traced back to the first few years of life.”

He said that the benefits of early childhood development programs far exceed their costs and the return, at 16 percent, far exceeds most projects being funded as economic development.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched an early childhood initiative through its Institute for a Competitive Workforce, recognizing that the rate of return to human capital investment shows that early education offers a greater payoff than later investments in education.

The institute reported that research indicated that every dollar invested in preschool resulted in savings from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead.

The Business Roundtable, consisting of CEOs from leading U.S. corporations, issued a position paper concluding that a public commitment to preschool would improve public education and strengthen the workforce.

So here sits North Dakota with a ton of money and very little preschool investment, depriving children of richer lives and society of economic growth.

Bills were introduced in the 2013 legislative session to authorize and fund preschool education. However, the social and economic significance of early education was not appreciated in legislative circles.

So the money was stripped from the bills, and the Legislature authorized local school districts to offer preschool, but they had to find their own money – this action coming as the Legislature was cutting property taxes and mandating offsetting reductions in local school levies. A strange inconsistent squeeze play.

North Dakota can afford to do better. We can come out of the “Chicken Little” syndrome. We have the money, and what could be a higher priority than giving our kids a head start on life?


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com