Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials
Rapid City Journal, June 30
Expand preschool to help everyone
Kindergarten teachers know quickly which of their students attended preschool. They’re the ones prepared to learn.
Third grade teachers can usually predict which of their students will become truants and dropouts. Education after third grade relies increasingly on reading, and those who can’t read well will fall further behind.
The kids who showed up at school unready for kindergarten are likely to be the same ones who will struggle in fourth grade, then cycle through jobs, become pregnant as teenagers, need welfare or end up in jail. It’s a waste of human potential, but it’s also a cost to taxpayers, crime victims and employers, who can’t find qualified staff.
If only those kids had shown up at kindergarten prepared.
The latest Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation cites a lack of state funding for early childhood education as an ongoing concern. South Dakota is one of a handful of states that provides no financial support for early childhood education, and in South Dakota two-thirds of youths do not attend preschool.
Toda, kindergarten provides what first grade once did. Preschool is where kids learn to work together, follow rules and pay attention.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, are loath to embark on any path that might lead to mandatory preschool, fearing its ongoing costs and potential infringement of liberties. For many, mandating preschool for all kids age 3 and above — as Oklahoma did recently — seems like the thin edge of a government wedge.
Legislators last year rejected a bill that would have established a committee to study South Dakota prekindergarten programs. They wouldn’t even study it. Preschool education isn’t going anywhere in Pierre.
That doesn’t mean kids in South Dakota must suffer the lifetime consequences. Coalitions of faith interests, civic groups, businesses and charities have created scholarship programs for families who fall into the funding gap — too rich for federally funded Head Start programs and too poor to afford preschool on their own.
Poverty and underachievement go together. Bright kids from poor parents tend to underachieve as they age, while wealthier children with less talent often surmount poor starts. Poor families simply lack the resources to overcome setbacks.
In Sioux Falls, the Hope Coalition provides three-day-per-week preschool to low-income children. Recent additions will expand the program from 90 children last year to 150 this autumn. Seven certified preschools, most of them faith-based, now accept children for $2,500 per child and then integrate them with other preschool children. The two-year-old program is halfway to its goal of serving 300 students. Businesses, individuals, charities and foundations provide all funding.
They represent people “who believe this will make Sioux Falls a better place to live in 10-20-30 years,” said Randall Beck, the program’s executive director.
In Rapid City, a seven-year-old initiative called Starting Strong, overseen by Early Childhood Connections, provides scholarships to 85 children whose parents can then choose among seven certified preschools. Funding comes from the John T. Vucurevich Foundation and others. Five-day-per-week preschool is guaranteed for two years to any child who qualifies at age 3.
More options may be coming to Rapid City. Mayor Steve Allender is looking to expand early childhood education here. How it might look will depend on feedback from a host of community partners. Any resulting program should stay focused on what will make Rapid City families stronger. It will take relentless leadership to beat this drum and convince businesses of the strong potential return on investment.
If Rapid City and Sioux Falls can prepare more kids to learn in kindergarten, the state might see fit to help other communities replicate their efforts. Done right, projects occurring on both ends of the state could eventually teach all of South Dakota a thing or two.
Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, June 27
Despite defeat, push for public access continues
The Argus Leader’s eight-year battle for transparency in government spending records reached its legal pinnacle this spring in front of the United States Supreme Court. On Monday, in a shattering blow to government transparency, that battle was lost.
Our quest for public access to information about where federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars are spent in South Dakota was struck down. A 6-3 majority reversed nearly a half-century of judicial precedent, effectively prioritizing private industry’s desire for secrecy in government dealings over the public’s right to know how their tax money is spent.
In 2011, under the Freedom of Information Act, our reporters requested the annual amounts the federal government paid to retailers that participate in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We were examining rural communities’ access to affordable, nutritious food and probing issues of potential fraud by retailers who accept government payment.
Some of the few such windows journalists have gotten into the $70 billion SNAP system have revealed clear abuses. According to indictments brought by the Department of Justice in 2017 against a group of retailers in southern Florida, eight convenience stores “received more than $20 million in federal payments for transactions in which they did not provide any food” by exchanging SNAP benefits for as little as half their value in cash.
Retail industry trade group Food Marketing Institute picked up the gauntlet after the USDA gave up challenging Argus Leader court victories. Yet we prevailed at the 8th Circuit Court against FMI’s argument, which was rooted in Exemption 4 of the FOIA: that retailers would suffer competitive harm were the information we sought to be made public.
Monday’s ruling made clear why this Supreme Court agreed to hear FMI’s appeal of the 8th Circuit decision. It was not due to the particulars of our specific case. Ours was simply the first FOIA case to reach this level that could be used as a vehicle to strike the “substantial competitive injury” test used in the judicial system since 1974 to determine whether or not information involving private business dealings with the government should be kept confidential or could be made public.
The majority opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch ignored that the records we requested were of government payments to businesses, information that is typically public record. Gorsuch focused only on an extreme narrowing of meaning of the word “confidential” in the original text of FOIA as written in 1966, basing this new restrictive definition on dictionaries of that era.
This strict textual approach, adherence to the letter of the law versus its spirit, has only recently been on the ascendancy in U.S. courts following years of legal interpretation based on the intent of lawmakers whose language was imprecise or idiosyncratic.
Since a 2015 dissent by textualist justices Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia, a sect of the Supreme Court has been waiting for the opportunity to break the competitive-harm lens through which Exemption 4 interpretations have been viewed. Unfortunately, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media was sucked into the gravitational pull of that movement.
We agree with Justice Stephen Breyer’s partial dissent in this case, in which he was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor: that this ruling is at odds with FOIA’s principles of public access to government information that cannot otherwise be obtained. As Breyer wrote, “After all, where information is already publicly available, people do not submit FOIA requests — they use Google ... given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need not be disclosed, I fear the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness, or bureaucratic inertia.”
Extending Gorsuch’s logic in the majority opinion, a local contractor’s invoice for payment for road paving work done for the city of Sioux Falls could be shielded simply because it was submitted by a private contractor. The open bidding process — one of the most fundamental anti-corruption methods — is at risk of being undermined.
As Breyer’s dissent charges, “For the majority, a business holding information as private and submitting it under an assurance of privacy is enough to deprive the public of access. But a tool used to probe the relationship between government and business should not be unavailable whenever government and business wish it so.”
The majority opinion also fails to acknowledge the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which added explicit language concerning the definition of confidentiality on which the decision centered. That’s important because, although this week’s decision essentially abdicates Congress’s role to either industry or the executive branch, Congress is the next battlefield in the fight to cast sunshine on government dealings.
In that regard, there are already signs of hope. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley took to the Senate floor Thursday as “an advocate for the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s business being public,” venting his displeasure that this week’s ruling restricts access to public information.
Grassley said he is “working on legislation to address these developments and to promote access to government records. Americans deserve an accountable government, and transparency leads to accountability.” We hope that South Dakota’s congressional delegation plans to join that fight.
Such a response softens the acute disappointment we felt in the wake of our Supreme Court loss. We vow to redouble our watchdog efforts. Although this battle fell short, it can serve to spur important action in the ongoing push for public access to government information.
We might be temporarily down, but we promise never to be out.
Madison Daily Leader, June 26
So just what is ‘money’ these days?
The head of the international Financial Stability Board warned world leaders this week that cryptocurrencies need close scrutiny by regulators.
Cryptocurrencies are a new sort of digital money invented by entrepreneurs in the last decade. Bitcoin may be the most familiar, but more than 4,000 similar currencies have been created.
These new alternatives force us to consider what is “money.” Simply, it can be anything used to exchange for goods or services. Early money may have been stones, or food, or precious metals. As long as both sides agree to the exchange, then anything can be used as money.
Money can also be used as a place to store value. We earn a paycheck for work conducted one week but don’t buy groceries with it until a week or more later. Generally, we count on money to hold its value so that it could buy the same amount of food whenever it’s used.
Traditional currencies are issued by most countries and some, like the U.S. dollar or the Euro, are very stable. Other currencies, issued by countries with weak economies or corrupt governments, are very unstable. The Indonesian rupiah or the Russian ruble are considered the most volatile of currencies.
At the moment, cryptocurrencies are very unstable. They may buy a lot more or a lot less tomorrow than they do today. Eighteen months ago, a Bitcoin was worth about $19,650. Six months ago, it was worth about $4,000. Today, it is worth around $10,000.
Because of such volatility, cryptocurrencies are bought and sold mostly for speculation rather than as currencies. Speculators buy if they think the value will go up, sell when they think it will go down. It isn’t much different then spinning a roulette wheel.
Perhaps cryptocurrencies someday will become reliable, stable versions of money. Until then, we’ll rely on time-tested currencies.