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North Dakota has the highest share of 3- and 4-year-olds not in school, but experts are torn about the effects of early education. Getty Images

North Dakota has the highest rate of young kids not in school. Does it matter?

FARGO — North Dakota has the highest percentage of young children not in school compared with other states, according to a new report from Kids Count, a data center that publishes a comprehensive annual report on children's well-being.

Between 2015 and 2017, 69% of the state's 3 and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in nursery school, preschool or kindergarten.

That number is a problem, according to Kids Count. Early learning programs, such as pre-K, create a foundation for educational development and well-being, particularly for low-income students, according to the report.

But not everyone agrees early education is the best for young children, and studies are widely polarized.

While some studies show that students greatly benefit from preschool and pre-K programs, others show that early schooling can have lasting negative impacts on students, including contributing to the rate of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

The pre-K divide

Demand has grown in recent years for universal pre-K, government-funded programs that serve children regardless of a family's income level.

Currently, only nine states offer pre-K for all students. However, most states offer some type of voluntary pre-K. Almost two-thirds of states increased pre-K funding in recent years and have pre-K programs for targeted students, such as dual-language learners, or have limited open enrollment.

North Dakota is one of seven states that do not offer government-funded pre-K.

Fargo offers Head Start programs for low-income students and an early childhood special education program through Fargo Public Schools for students with special needs. There are currently no plans to expand pre-K programs in Fargo Public Schools, according to district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.

In Minnesota, however, there's been a push to expand pre-K and early education programs for all students. Considerably lower than North Dakota, Minnesota had 54% of its young children out of school, according to Kids Count.

Minnesota invested an additional $28 million into early childhood education during the 2015-16 budget, and in 2017, the state expanded programs to include voluntary pre-K classes for students across 74 school districts and charter schools. The demand from communities and parents was so great, the program has now expanded to 7,000 students across 80 districts, according to Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Ricker says the programs have been a wide success in Minnesota in preparing students academically and emotionally for early elementary school.

The push for pre-K

Pre-K aims to prepare students for kindergarten by giving them a jump start in learning. Programs focus on learning to read, listening to verbal directions, and sitting at classroom desks for longer periods.

Researchers say pre-K can promote vocabulary, language and reading skills, and can boost social gains and the ability to work independently and with peers.

Pre-K can be especially beneficial for low-income students, who tend to be the least prepared for kindergarten and face larger learning delays. Other studies show that later in life, pre-K students are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be arrested for violent crimes, and more likely to be employed.

The harms of pre-K

But researchers from Harvard and Stanford argue that early education may actually be harmful to children’s development.

About 6.1 million children had a diagnosis of ADHD in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-third of these diagnoses are in children under age 6, according to Harvard scholars.

But these diagnoses might not be accurate, according to Harvard researchers. One reason for increased ADHD diagnoses, especially in young children, may be pre-K.

Young children are being overdiagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be more immature than their slightly older classmates, according to Timothy Layton, assistant professor of health care policy for the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

Layton was the lead author of a study published last November that found younger students are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. The study found that children born in August, who are the youngest in their grade, are 30% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, compared with children born later in the year who are slightly older and enrolled in the same grade.

This may be because younger students are expected to meet behavioral expectations that are developmentally inappropriate, Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, told The Forum.

"As all parents know, a year can make a big difference in a child’s early development," McDonald said.

Scholars also argue that gains from pre-K are not long-lasting.

By third grade, pre-K and non-pre-K students are generally academically indistinguishable from one another, according to reporting from Education Week.

Instead of pre-K, these scholars argue that extended periods of play, such as the time in preschool, yields higher mental health and developmental gains. Delaying school by one year can reduce inattention and hyperactivity by 73%, according to Stanford Health.

The takeaway for parents

Parents may feel mounting pressure to enroll students early, McDonald said. Instead, parents should consider opting out of early schooling to allow more opportunities for unstructured play.

Both McDonald and Ricker agree. Parents should do the research and choose what's best for their child.

"Visit the sites," Ricker said. "A parent knows if their child will thrive there."

Pre-K, preschool, day care — what's the difference?

Day care: Centers offer full-time care with flexible hours, and accept children from infants to pre-kindergarteners.

Preschool: Sites offer care during regular school hours to children between 2 and 4 years old. Programs emphasize exploration through play and interactions among age groups.

Pre-K: Programs enroll 4 and 5-year-olds. Activities are more academically-focused, and children tend to work in groups and sit for lengthier periods to prepare for a classroom setting.

Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or ebeyer@forumcomm.com.

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