Idaho preschool advocates are heartened by the state's renewed interest in education reform and believe it could open the door to support for early childhood education throughout the state.
"People are recognizing there is a big piece missing," said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.
Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force for Improving Education brought stakeholders together for an eight-month discussion this year on K-12 education, producing 20 recommendations such as restoring lost school district revenue, improving reading performance and insisting that students master one subject before moving to the next.
Now preschool advocates, who've had no luck in pressing Idaho's Legislature to support early childhood education, caution that well-intentioned recommendations could face limited success without a program that also prepares children under 5 for elementary school.
"We have to stop picking and choosing and look at this system as a whole," Oppenheimer said.
Lawmakers resisted pleas from business organizations in the past asking to let school districts direct money toward voluntary preschool programs, citing twin arguments: Preschool education belongs in the home; and the state needs all its resources for running public schools and can't take on early childhood education.
SIGNS OF CHANGE
Tom Luna, the state superintendent of public instruction, who once sided more closely with the Legislature, said he is rethinking his views on early childhood education.
"It is obvious to me there are some homes where that is just not going to happen," he said. "We have to find a solution."
He's not ready to dump the problem in government's lap, he said, but solutions could involve communities and businesses.
State Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, plans to introduce a bill in January asking the state to support a $1.4 million pilot preschool program for three years in five Idaho school districts to determine how effective early childhood education could be.
The private sector would put up 55 percent of the money - about $770,000. Pilot programs would have classes of 15 to 20 students for a total of 114 Idaho students.
Kloc wants parents to be a part of the program.
"Parents who work with kids have better results," said Kloc, who worked as a business education teacher in New York City.
Oppenheimer said she likes Kloc's idea because it doesn't require asking the Legislature to put up millions of dollars, which is often a conversation stopper.
"We have to take steps," she said. "I understand this isn't going to happen overnight."
But the arguments that did stop government support for early childhood education in the past haven't dimmed, said State Sen. John Goedde, Senate Education Committee chairman.
He also said a pilot program could be troubling. "How can you offer (this) to one set of children and not the other and still say you have a free and equal (education) system?" he asked.
Pushing for more even as Otter and the Legislature take up large-scale education reforms could be poor timing, some early childhood advocates worry.
Idaho Business for Education has long backed preschool programs it says better prepare students for kindergarten and beyond. But lawmakers will be dealing with K-12 reforms this session.
"As much as I applaud Hy for sponsoring the bill, it probably doesn't have a big chance of getting through the Legislature," said Rod Gramer, Idaho Business for Education CEO and president.
LOOKING TO MISSISSIPPI
In Mississippi, however, a wave of K-12 education reforms became a vehicle that preschool advocates used to their advantage earlier this year, said state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.
Mississippi, conservative and rural like Idaho, had never supported early childhood education before this year.
Wiggins, a former assistant district attorney who had watched kids struggle and drop out of school, helped craft a law that provides $3 million for collaborative preschool programs. Local partners can use in-kind contributions - such as a building donated for the school - for their share. Businesses that donate get a tax credit.
Preschool groups must be headed by a school district or a non-profit organization. They must include a Head Start, if there is one in the community. Teachers must be trained, Wiggins said.
Preschool backers put together a broad coalition of supporters, including businesses, military, law enforcement and educators. Clergy supported the bill, positioning it as a family values issue because preschool could strengthen families.
Wiggins ran into the same arguments from lawmakers that preschool advocates face in Idaho.
When opponents complained that government was inserting itself into family matters, Wiggins and others noted that 85 percent of Mississippi's preschoolers already were in day care or the care of relatives other than parents. (In Idaho, that's about 67 percent.) He also said the program was voluntary, so no one was being forced to attend.
When naysayers complained about the cost in addition to K-12 education reforms, Wiggins said the state shouldn't stop at kindergarten: "I would rather invest my money in the beginning and get a better return on my investment."
The measure passed. The state has fielded nearly 100 requests to establish collaborative preschool groups, Wiggins said.
"We don't have a lot of money in the state," Wiggins said. "If you work hard and get creative, you can create pre-K early education in a conservative, fiscally responsible manner."
Bill Roberts: 377-6408; Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts