The conversation about early childhood education in the Black Hills took a different direction in 2006 when the state legislature passed a law that required children to attend kindergarten prior to age 7. It wasn’t a law that directly affected many families – almost all children were already attending kindergarten by that age – but it gave new fuel to a long-term debate about pre-kindergarten education. South Dakota is only one of ten states that does not offer Pre-K funding.
While the debate about early childhood education, including Pre-K and all-day kindergarten, can be heard nationwide, the voice of western South Dakota opponents adds a unique twist. Some ranching families say they need flexibility in deciding when to start sending their children because they live far from the school. Other lobbyists say families should decide when to send their children to school and for how long, not the government.
Advocates for Pre-K assert that early childhood education gives a head start to high-risk students. Some have cited the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, which says that every dollar spent on early education programs for at-risk children saves $7 on crime, school absenteeism and other public expenses.
In the Black Hills, a Rapid City task force was formed to research and address childhood development and care in the area. The members set a goal of implementing a Pre-K pilot program by the fall of 2011, but it has yet to do so. However, Rapid City public schools will implement full-day kindergarten by 2012, a move that in other states has been a precursor of pre-k education.