A group of preschoolers clamped their outstretched arms together, an uneven chorus of “ah” noises in the air as they all pretended to be “Allie Alligator.”
It was Thursday morning at Kids Korner Preschool and Daycare, just after the Pledge of Allegiance. The 16 children were playing Zoo-phonics bingo, a multisensory game used to teach the alphabet.
Owner Lisa Disney and manager Pam Taylor passed out paper plates and scissors, and the kids began cutting shapes from orange construction paper.
“What shapes are these?” Disney asked. “Rectangle! Oval! Diamond!” the children shouted back.
One boy proudly hoisted his art into the air. “It’s a tree!” he said.
Programs such as Disney’s are offered throughout the Gem State. But placing your child in one can be expensive.
Idaho is among five states nationally that don’t fund preschool despite its proven benefits.
Though the Legislature did boost education funding by $107 million last session, preschool was ignored.
Federal Head Start education programs do exist for low-income families, but many aren’t aware of them or are reluctant to accept the stigma associated.
There have been many legislative efforts as recent as 2015 to introduce public preschool to Idaho, but none have grown past ideas. Last year’s bill didn’t receive a hearing. And the 2017 legislative agenda doesn’t include a state-funded preschool-related bill, said Idaho State Board of Education Spokesman Blake Youde.
Supporters consistently run into two legislative objections:
1. Idaho doesn’t have enough money for its own public education system and needs to put dollars there, some legislators say.
2. Preschool education is a role for Idaho families, say other lawmakers.
Still, groups such as the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and Idaho Business for Education keep trying. They’ve worked for more than a year on early-childhood legislation, ranging from community-based schools getting matching funds from the state to online programs for people who want to focus on early childhood education at home.
Much of the push has come from advocacy organizations. Now, said Beth Oppenheimer, Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children executive director, advocates need to broaden their support. Supporters need to bring parent voices to the Statehouse, where they can share their concerns over a lack of state-supported preschool programs in Idaho.
“We have to get families engaged,” Oppenheimer said.
The U.S. Department of Education reported in June that an average Idaho preschool teacher makes $21,930 per year compared to the average elementary school teacher, who makes $44,940.
Supporters also have to do a better job convincing lawmakers that early childhood education is an investment that saves money in later remediation, Oppenheimer said. “We are going to see those benefits in cost savings ... almost immediately,” she said.
Despite the ban on spending state money for early-child education in Idaho, school district-operated preschools do exist. With support from the city of Boise and donors such as United Way and Micron Foundation, Boise School District opened early-childhood education programs in two half-day sessions at Hawthorne Elementary School and one half-day session at Whitney Elementary School last November for about 60 students.
The first test scores on reading readiness from the preschool programs won’t be available until fall. There are preliminary discussions about others trying early-education programs elsewhere in the district.
Early on, the most important factor in a student’s education is the support they get from their parents. We don’t need to be rewarding parents who are not working with their kids by sending their kids to a program. We need to be encouraging parents to work with their kids.
Critic Steven Thayn, a state senator from Emmett, in 2013 to Boise State Public Radio
We agree families have a huge responsibility to ensure their children are getting the foundational skills they need, but we have such low-wage jobs in Idaho that parents have to work two or three jobs to put food on the table.
A BIG NEED
Idaho has the highest rate of preschool-age children absent from the classroom: 69 percent, according to the 2016 Kids Count Data Book.
Just 59 percent of Idaho’s K-3 children — 52 percent of kindergartners — hit the Idaho Reading Indicator benchmark in the fall of 2015.
Many early education advocates believe that number could be improved if more children were enrolled in preschool.
At Kids Korner, tuition runs $115 per week, which can be a burden for many families already struggling to make ends meet, especially if they’re enrolling more than one child.
And for some preschools, tuition doesn’t even provide enough funds to hire qualified teachers.
“I think Idaho is behind almost all the other states by at least three to four years in early childhood education,” Disney said. “To work at a preschool you don’t even have to technically be a teacher.”
Though some studies have suggested that the benefits of preschool disappear after a few years, especially for high-income families, The New York Times found that well-constructed programs often bolster K-12 achievement.
There’s also evidence that preschoolers are more likely to attend college when they grow up, and less likely to fall into addiction and crime.
“Children’s brains develop 90 percent by the time they’re 6, so we have a remarkable opportunity to help those kids develop and grow,” said Oppenheimer.
Done well, preschool provides a foundation for skills expanded upon in kindergarten and first grade.
Students at Kids Korner aren’t filling out math equations and writing short-answer essays all day, but they are learning sounds, letters and how to hold pencil.
“A child without that is lost in kindergarten,” Disney said. “It makes teachers’ jobs easier when they know their ABCs, how to count, how to process colors, how to use scissors even.”
The difference is obvious in children who’ve attended preschool, said Bonneville Joint School District 93 Superintendent Chuck Shackett.
“There’s no comparison with how much better they are coming into the first grade with their letters already learned,” he said. “We have so many parents who call us and want preschool, but we can’t offer it because there’s no way we can afford it.”
Shackett supports state-funded preschool, partially because of the increases in childhood literacy it could lead to.
“I think the greatest goal we have is to get all students reading on grade level by third grade, and statistics show if that happens, the chances of graduating high school are at least three times greater,” he said.
Preschool is also a place for children to learn how to be around other children in a group setting — one that doesn’t exist in most homes.
Many children who enter preschool, Disney said, aren’t used to routines.
“When to use the bathroom, how to eat lunch in a group, waiting in line to wash hands. You get 30 of them in here shouting ‘No it’s my turn!’” Disney said. “They’re learning to share, to play with other kids.”
Studies have also found that lower-socioeconomic preschoolers receive greater benefits from time spent in the classroom. Preschool serves as a kind of equalizer between households that don’t provide equal resources for their children.
“If we can get children who come from lower socioeconomic homes in preschools, they get that exposure to reading and language they’d find in higher-income households,” said Rex Miller, District 93’s elementary special services director.
FIGHTING TO SCRAPE BY
Many of those parents, however, are too busy supporting their families financially.
“It has to do with unrealistic values. We agree families have a huge responsibility to ensure their children are getting the foundational skills they need, but we have such low-wage jobs in Idaho that parents have to work two or three jobs to put food on the table,” Oppenheimer said.
Low-income families that benefit the most from preschool have the greatest need for it and the most trouble accessing it.
Jenesa Johnson has two children enrolled at Kids Korner.
The Idaho Child Care Program pays for part of her children’s preschool and day care, but money is still tight.
“It’s my most expensive bill, so it’s pretty tricky,” Johnson said. “If I didn’t get help from ICCP, I don’t know what I’d do.”
She works at Broulim’s Fresh Foods, and doesn’t have time to teach her preschool-age daughter during the day.
“Building those values at home, having meals, is really important,” Johnson said. “But in reality most people’s entire lives don’t just revolve around family. People have to work and go to school.”
Johnson’s case isn’t unique.
Disney has a stack of ICCP applications in her office from people trying to enroll their kids at preschool who can’t otherwise afford it.
“We work with foster care, with the Department of Health and Welfare. Even $100 per week is too much for many. That money could go toward food or clothes,” Disney said.
On average, Disney sends $10,000 per year to collections.
Federal Head Start education programs do exist for low-income families, but many aren’t aware of them, or are reluctant to accept the stigma associated.