Four-year-olds in northeast South Dakota could all go to preschool if a plan proposed by President Barack Obama is carried out.
During the State of the Union address, Obama asked members of Congress to make quality preschool available to all children. Last week, he unveiled a plan to invest in the education of the youngest of Americans.
Tom Hopper, executive director of Northeast South Dakota Head Start, said it's an incredible opportunity for children.
"I've always believed that the greatest measure of a nation shows through its commitment to children, senior citizens and veterans," Hopper said.
The plan proposes that access to preschool be expanded for all children, with the goal of all 4-year-olds having a preschool slot.
"There are so many children that need to be served that are not being served," Hopper said.
Hopper is still studying the proposal's details, but he believes the proper decisions have to be made by Congress.
"It’s important to keep in mind, these proposals still have to go through the channels of legislation in Congress for possible eventual implementation," he said.
For Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, a member of the education committee in the South Dakota House, the plan is unnecessary.
"We don't need Washington, D.C., dictating our educational programs in South Dakota," he said. "We have good folks who understand our communities' children, and we have great parents who understand those same issues."
If implemented, the proposal would expand the Head Start program, since state preschool programs would serve 4-year-olds. Head Start is a program in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Northeast South Dakota Head Start currently serves 392 3- and 4-year-olds. That's the maximum number of students that funding for the program covers.
"Sometimes people say that if there are more children that need services, we should just open enrollment more," Hopper said. "That's not possible because of funding, though."
It could also mean that the regional program could begin offering Early Head Start, which helps pregnant women, infants and toddlers with the transition to preschool.
South Dakota is one of 11 states without a state preschool program. North Dakota is another.
According to data from the state Department of Education, 3,703 children are enrolled in preschool programs at private and public school districts across the state this fall. At the same time, 11,892 children entered kindergarten.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research's most recent yearbook, it would cost $3,536 a year to educate each child in South Dakota to meet the organization's educational benchmarks.
Kaylee Jahraus is the director of Bethlehem Lutheran Preschool. It's a private program, but Jahraus believes that preschool benefits all children and that every child should have the opportunity to attend a preschool.
"During the preschool years, young children are developing a sense of initiative and creativity," Jahraus said. "They are eager to know more and curious about the world around them."
Kaiser said preschool programs should be a matter of local control and that creating a state preschool program in South Dakota could involve cuts to K-12 education.
"I'm sticking by the South Dakota Constitution, which mandates that we need to fund K-12 education," he said. "I've consistently said that money needs to go to education, but we need to focus on K-12 education."
He said he also wants to avoid further federal debt. Though a budget for the program has not been released, it's estimated that it could cost about $10 billion a year. That's almost 10 percent of the federal education budget.
"We've got to get a grasp, as South Dakotans and as a nation, on how our money supply works here," he said. "Right now is not the time to ask the federal government to be in more debt."
The Head Start program has placed upon itself much-needed reforms over the past few years, Hopper said.
"Federal monitoring reviews are conducted in all Head Start programs throughout the country," he said. "In the last couple years, these standards have even been strengthened and any Head Start Program which falls below certain standards are subject to competition for federal funding."
Though a majority of children served by Head Start must meet federal income guidelines, the program does serve families with income higher than the guidelines. The president's proposal includes plans to extend funding to families with incomes that are double the poverty line.
At Bethlehem Lutheran Preschool, Jahraus said tuition assistance is available to help as many families as possible afford preschool.
Though many details of Obama's plan are still in the works, one thing is certain.
"The president is trying to involve and encourage participation by states to become involved or expand involvement in early childhood education," Hopper said.