SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — What is the state of preschool in South Dakota? 

That’s the question both the Department of Education and Department of Social Services are looking to answer through listening sessions and surveys. Specifically, both state agencies are looking at pre-K education for children ages 3-5. 

The joint study comes after DSS has completed a cost of child care analysis in September 2022 and a market rate survey for the child care subsidy program. South Dakota is one of just a few states that does not provide any state-funded preschool.

A 2017 memo on the topic by the South Dakota Legislative Research Council said “since no state-funded preschool program exists, low-income families most often must either rely on Head Start or go without preschool for their children because they simply cannot afford it.” 

DSS and DOE held a total of seven meetings, two virtual and one in Brookings, Aberdeen, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Chamberlain in the month of March. 

Early Learner South Dakota Director Kayla Klein said the state of preschool in South Dakota varies depending on community needs. 

“A lot of our childcare providers already offer or have some type of preschool, kind of intermixed within the care that they’re providing,” Klein told KELOLAND News. “It just kind of looks a little bit different depending on where you’re at.” 

Klein pointed to Federal Reserve Bank studies, which have shown every dollar invested in early education can return anywhere from $7-$14. 

“The benefits are really endless when it comes to quality care and education for children from birth to age five,” Klein said. “This is when the majority of a child’s neural synapses are taking place. Their brain development is so rapid at this point in time that they need as much quality engagement with loving and caring providers and educators as they possibly can get.”  

In addition, DSS and DOE have a survey asking business and community members to answer six questions about pre-K education in South Dakota and how it relates to workforce challenges. One question asks where should pre-K education take place in “your community.” It lists options as public school district, licensed child care, private or faith-based, home-based private child care, Head Start or other. 

Klein’s organization supports any kind of access for high-quality early learning. 

“The biggest thing is making sure that there’s quality standards tied to preschool,” Klein said. “That might look different a little bit and I’m really hoping that this study maybe can define some of those things that the DOE and DSS are looking at.” 

Informal child care task force forming 

The topic of pre-K and child care may be two different issues and two different discussions in South Dakota. Klein said Early Learner South Dakota looks at both issues and wants to support state agencies in any way it can. 

And while the study continues on pre-K education, more information will be coming on child care in South Dakota. DSS also has $38 million in discretionary funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that must be spent by September 2024.      

State lawmakers opted not to conduct an official summer study on the topic of child care, but an informal task force is being started, Klein said. 

“Early Learner South Dakota was very intentional about not putting forward any bills or supporting bills throughout the legislative session,” said Klein, who signed up as a lobbyist for the child care industry in 2022. “Even though we don’t have an official summer study, we do have this unofficial taskforce that I’m very optimistic about what this can bring.” 

Klein said Republican Sen. Tim Reed is one of the state lawmakers looking to help the task force look at the issue. Klein said key areas for improvement are quality, capacity, affordability and accessibility. She said that will include studying the financial and workforce issues childcare providers face. 

“There are many legislators that are interested and we hope to see them come on board,” Klein said. 

In Sioux Falls, the nonprofit organization Sioux Falls Thrive is finishing up a community report on child care recommendations for Sioux Falls. In a collaboration, Nicole Fluth and Rana DeBoer were hired for a six-month project to find solutions. 

Sioux Falls Thrive President Michelle Erpenbach said the report from Rana and Nicole will likely be made public some time next month.