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Campaign Watch: Spotlight on Two Early Education Laggards

Today's final Democratic presidential primaries have focused public and media attention on South Dakota and Montana, two largely rural western states that get the last vote in the 2008 primary season. Here's something else these two states have in common: They're both early education laggards.

South Dakota and Montana are two of only 11 states without any kind of state pre-k program. (Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states comprise the majority of laggards here--North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming also lack pre-k.) Nor are they among the 9 states that provide full-day kindergarten for all children. In fact, both states' finance systems actually create a disincentive for school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, because school districts receive the same money per kindergartener regardless of whether they offer half- or full-day kindergarten programs. South Dakota, however, provides the same amount of state funding for kindergarten as it does for other grades, while Montana provides school districts with only half as much money per kindergartener. And neither state rates well on the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies' ranking of state standards and oversight for childcare centers and family care homes.

Nor has the political climate in these states been particularly hospitable to increased investment in early education access or quality. Earlier this year, the South Dakota legislature shot down a proposal to allow the state Department of Education to set voluntary preschool standards, even though nearly two-thirds of South Dakotans supported the idea. Debate over the measure illustrated that "culture wars" opposition to preschool, from conservatives who view it as a gateway to government intrusion in the family, is still alive and well in some states, particularly those that lag on early education.

But there are some positive signs. In 2007, the South Dakota legislature approved $700,000 in funding for a pilot preschool initiative in Sioux Falls (a local businessman ponied up half the costs). And Montana has in place a quality rating system that identifies higher quality childcare providers.

Both Democratic presidential candidates on the ballot in South Dakota and Montana today have proposed substantial new early education investments that would provide both an incentive and additional funding for states like South Dakota and Montana to get more involved in supporting early education. These states also illustrate an important trade-off that both candidates have made--in different ways--in designing their plans. Senator Hillary Clinton's plan, which would provide funding only to states that have pre-k programs that meet quality standards, would create an incentive for these states to invest in pre-k. But children in these states wouldn't be able to benefit from that funding if their legislators continue to buck pre-k investments--although other parts of Senator Clinton's early childhood plan could help these youngsters. Senator Barack Obama's plan would meet these states closer to where they are, providing funding that could be used for a wider array of early education activities. But Obama's plan would also require states to create Early Learning Councils that could serve as a starting point for developing state pre-k or childcare systems in these states.

Both South Dakota and Montana have lower rates of poverty, and higher levels of school performance, than the national averages, but both also suffer from significant pockets of rural poverty and poor educational performance. In addition, rural families in these states have a particularly difficult time accessing pre-k or quality, affordable childcare. Increasing support for early education is an important strategy for addressing these problems and strengthening both states' futures.