South Dakota makes preschool a form of economic developmentby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Business leaders in South Dakota are taking an interesting approach to economic development. They're using money set aside for recruiting new businesses and investing it in preschool education. Studies show that every dollar spent on early education saves seven dollars down the road, on potential welfare and incarceration costs.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — Ron Moquist's company, Raven Industries, makes everything from hot air balloons to army uniforms. His business is in downtown Sioux Falls and he knows what he looks for in employees.
"The strong back has been replaced by the educated mind," he says.
Moquist is a self-proclaimed conservative who finds himself taking a rather liberal stance when it comes to business. He says there are more and more kids coming out of high school unprepared to enter the work force.
"They're being asked to do processes in our company, electronic processes that are very difficult and very sophisticated," Moquist says. "They're out of high school but our expectation about what they're supposed is very high. We need them to take math and science in high school."
Moquist says it's time to change the trend he's seeing by focusing on the formative years.
"We know that the number one predictor of success in school is poverty," he says. "If you start from a poverty back ground you will have a difficult time in school. So what we said is that we've got to get to these kids sooner because so many of them are starting kindergarten 18 months behind their peers and most of them never catch up."
For the past three years Moquist lead a Chamber of Commerce committee that researched preschool programs in Sioux Falls.
The result is a three-year pilot program set to begin this fall. Over three years it'll cost nearly a $1.5 million to reach 240 kids. Republican Gov. Mike Rounds offered half of the money from his economic development fund. The other half is split between the United Way and Sioux Falls businesses.
Volunteers of America operates five day care centers in Sioux Falls and Jackie Polzin is the Child Services Director. Some of the centers incorporate a preschool program others do not. Preschool is considered a two-to-three hour program a few days a week.
Polzin served on the Chamber of Commerce committee with Ron Moquist. Polzin says any existing preschool or home day care operations can apply to be a part of the pre school pilot program. Polzin says there will be guidelines but it's not clear yet what the pilot program will look like.
"There's going to be some qualifications for teachers, we're going to use the South Dakota early learning guidelines," she says. "Also (we'll) use creative curricula to provide learning through play, which is what it's all about at that age level."
Polzin says kids in pre school learn much more than colors and their abc's. She says they acquire important socialization skills: how to listen; follow instructions; share and get along with others. Polzin says there are more than 200 children on the waiting list for pre school programs with a sliding fee that cater to low income families. She says there are many single parent homes where the parents are just trying to make ends meet and don't have the time or the energy to work with their three and four year olds.
"Sometimes they don't understand the importance of pre school," Polzin says. "Also they don't have the money to pay out to send a child two-and-a-half hours of pre school especially if they're going to day care, and you can't do both in a lot of cases."
Polzin says pre school education is expensive and day care centers don't have the money to pay certified teachers. She says for the parents who are able to pay, they have no trouble finding qualified pre schools.
The South Dakota legislature will set up guidelines for the pilot program. After three years, supporters hope the program will go state wide with public money. South Dakota is one of 10 states that does not offer pre school education statewide.
- Morning Edition, 01/30/2007, 7:25 a.m.