Education officials support preschool pilot program

BISMARCK—Preschool benefits young children and should receive state support, North Dakota education officials told state lawmakers on Monday.

Senate Bill 2338 requests $1.5 million for a preschool pilot program. Four school districts would receive state grants to offer early childhood education programs.

To receive a grant, school districts would need to establish an early childhood education advisory council, create a student application process and give priority to students from low-income families.

Devils Lake elementary Principal Debra Follman testified in favor of the bill and said her school district has used stimulus funds to temporarily support a preschool program.

“We have learned over the years that the investment in the education of young children far outweighs the dollars that will be required to help children catch up after they begin their formal schooling,” she said.

The waiting list for Head Start far exceeds the needs, leaving some of the state’s most disadvantaged children without any type of preschool education, Follman said.

“Kindergarten teachers in our district will vouch for the difference that a preschool program has on students,” she said.

North Dakota now has a variety of preschool options, but most are limited due to eligibility, availability and affordability, said JoAnn Brager of the North Dakota Association for the Education of Young Children.

The North Dakota Head Start Association reports waiting lists of 809 income eligible children for Head Start preschool services, she said.

In addition, child care providers are quitting due to opportunities for higher-paid jobs, and western North Dakota is not able to keep up with the needs, Brager said. Families moving to western North Dakota are also looking for preschools, she said.

Early childhood education programs use a play-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum approach, said Barb Arnold-Tengesdal, an assistant education professor at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

“It is not pushing academics down a 4-year-old’s throat,” she said.

The North Dakota Education Association and North Dakota School Boards Association also voiced support for the bill.

No one testified against the bill Monday. The Senate Education Committee did not take immediate action.

Ideas for improving K-12 education

BISMARCK — Continuing the North Dakota Scholarship program, providing funding for preschool programming and improving curriculum alignment between high schools and colleges are among the priorities for state education officials.

The North Dakota Commission on Education Improvement met Tuesday to review a draft report of its recommendations for the governor and state lawmakers.

Discussing issues related to students, the commission recommends using money from the state Land and Minerals Trust Fund to ensure the continuation of the North Dakota Scholarship program. Students are eligible to receive up to $6,000 if they meet certain criteria and attend college in the state.

The income from land leasing has been “explosive,” so the trust fund is “a very strong source of funding,” said Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the commission chairman.

The commission also recommends grants for two pilot projects to improve language arts alignment between high schools and colleges so students are better prepared for college.

A recommendation from the North Dakota Youth Council to create advising centers on each college campus also made the report.

Commission members also discussed early childhood education in the report. The 2009 Legislature rejected a special funding factor for pre-kindergarten education.

The commission recommends spending $830,000 to expand the “Gearing Up For Kindergarten” program offered through the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

The program provides classes for 4-year-olds and their parents to become familiar with concepts that will be introduced in kindergarten.

The commission’s report adds up to $81 million in K-12 funding requests, but more than half is for funding programs already in place, Dalrymple said.

The largest chunk — $40.2 million — is to continue the state’s current state aid formula payments for a full two-year period, he said.

This assumes the per-student payment would remain at $3,779 for both years of the 2011-13 biennium and is related to completing the school funding adequacy measures enacted in 2009.

Another $13.6 million addresses prior legislative action to add another day to the school year and to implement a factor of .025 for at-risk students, or those considered eligible for the free and reduced cost lunch program.

The approximately $30 million in new funding recommendations include:

* $15 million to increase the per-student payment by $50 per student each year of the 2011-13 biennium.

* $7.5 million for an alternative teacher compensation system. (See related story.)

* $2.5 million to increase the weighting factor for special education average daily membership from .07 to .073 to reflect more accurately the number of students needing special education services.

* $5 million to increase state reimbursement for transportation costs. Reimbursement for large buses would increase from 92 cents per mile to $1.03 per mile. Small buses would see an increase from 44 cents per mile to 46 cents per mile. The rate per student ride would go from 24 cents to 26 cents.

Discussing the report and its costs, Dalrymple said the state is going to face a legislative session where several of the state’s largest agencies are going to have big funding requests.

“So, in spite of the fact that the economy in North Dakota is doing well, the demands on the budget are tremendous. Tremendous,” he said.

The North Dakota Commission on Education Improvement will meet again in October to discuss the report draft again before determining a final version.