Early Learner SD has been awarded a $25,000 grant to advocate for and raise awareness statewide about the importance of early learning for babies and children through age 8. Early Learner SD’s work has taken on greater urgency since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many child care facilities throughout South Dakota to close. That has limited some children’s access to early learning opportunities.
Early Learner SD is a group of community leaders, legislators, university professors and other advocates for young children that formed two years ago. Early learning takes a “whole child” perspective, focusing on a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being.
“Our main priority is all early learners in any environment, whether they’re in formal (licensed) day care or informal (unlicensed) day care, or whether mom or dad is choosing to stay home and educate them, or whether they’re in preschool. We want to support parents and kids in any way we can,” said Kayla Klein, Black Hills Reads director and Early Learner SD policy and marketing chair.
“In South Dakota, there’s never been one united voice surrounding early learning, professionals and community leaders coming together for one cause and purpose. Early Learning SD does that,” she said.
The grant was awarded by a national nonprofit, the Alliance for Early Success, which works with early childhood policy advocates. Grant funds will be used for public policy forums, an awareness campaign, statewide and local advocacy efforts, and an advocacy tool kit. United Way is partnering with Early Learning SD by providing staff time and overseeing the use of grant money, Klein said.
“The overall goal of this work is to get the message out there, whether it’s consumer education with parents about what quality early learning looks like, or with the public and why early learning in any environment is so important to the children of South Dakota,” Klein said.
During the 2021 legislative session, Early Learning SD is planning public policy forums in Pierre that will educate adults about how to be an advocate for early learning. Some grant funds will go toward crafting bills, Klein said.
“Nationally, South Dakota ranks very low with early learning. We’re one of only three states that doesn’t have an Early Learning Advisory Council, which is a governor-appointed council. We’ve brought that to the legislators and it’s always been shot down. We’re one of the only states that doesn’t have any type of funding for early childhood (education),” Klein said.
Klein said legislators might mistakenly believe “early learning” automatically means requiring universal preschool for all children.
“That’s not what we’re advocating. Everyone should have the right to preschool or quality child care if they want. We want everyone to have the equal right,” she said.
Some grant funds will be used for a campaign over the next several months to educate the general public and to showcase advocates for early learning in South Dakota, Klein said. An advocacy tool kit coming later this fall will include facts and talking points for those who want to become early learning advocates.
Some advocacy work will focus on child care because it’s a prime source of kids’ quality early learning. Klein said she frequently hears the argument that “it’s the parents’ job to raise their kids,” but economically that can be difficult.
“The fact of the matter is that 75% of all parents of children under age 5 are working outside the home (in South Dakota). We are the highest in the United States to have all available parents working outside the home. Parents can’t afford to stay home with their children,” Klein said.
Earlier this year, the organization surveyed child care centers and in-home providers statewide. “What we realized is in the first few months of COVID-19, we lost almost 1,800 spots for child care,” Klein said. “Lots of providers had lost almost all their children or operated at 50% capacity. They’re still going at 100% of their normal expenses but with half the revenue or less coming in.”
“I think people assume child care is a money-making business, but there is no incentive in this state to become a provider. If we don’t do something and show how we need this, when economy is in full swing again, they’re not going to be there,” she said. “We’re nervous we have an infrastructure on the brink of collapse in South Dakota.”
Ultimately, supporting early learning benefits entire communities. Klein said every dollar invested in early learning shows a $7 to $14 return. Children who have quality early learning commit fewer crimes, are 50% less likely to be placed in special education when they start kindergarten, are more likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to go to secondary education, and are less likely to become teen parents, she said. As adults, children who had quality early learning are more likely to enrich their local economy by purchasing homes and cars.