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Back to School Approaches – But Not for Some Young North Dakotans

North Dakota ranks last in the nation for early education participation rates for three- and four-year-olds. (Oksana Kuzmina/Adobe Stock)
North Dakota ranks last in the nation for early education participation rates for three- and four-year-olds. (Oksana Kuzmina/Adobe Stock)
August 16, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. – It's almost time for North Dakota kids to go back to school – but some of the state's youngest won't be getting an education just yet.

The approach of the first day of the school year spotlights how few young North Dakotans are enrolled in early education programs – only 31%. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the state ranks last in the nation for participation.

Karen Olson, program director for North Dakota KIDS COUNT, says access and affordability are two of the biggest barriers for families. She notes about three-quarters of children live in households where both parents are working – one of the highest rates in the nation.

"When we look at county-level data in terms of availability of licensed child care, there are some counties in our state where we're meeting less than 10% of the potential need – need being those young children with working parents," says Olson.

Olson adds that the average cost for a four-year-old at a child-care center is $8,200 a year, which is about 10% of the average family income in North Dakota.

Olson says the state has started to address this issue. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill that provides scholarships to preschool programs that serve low-income families. She says conservative estimates find a $7 return to society for every one dollar spent on early education.

"Investment in high-quality preschool programs is a critical long-term economic investment in school readiness, student achievement and the future workforce," says Olson. “Those early experiences create a foundation for children to be not only successful students but eventually, productive adults."

Olson also notes dependable child care helps working parents, who sometimes have to miss work to find consistent care.

She says families can check out Child Care Aware of North Dakota to find local resources.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND