Correction: State Rep. Hy Kloc’s named was misspelled in an earlier version of this story..
Idaho lawmakers could to be asked next January to come up with money for preschool programs designed to prepare children for kindergarten.
A coalition of working and former Idaho CEOs and other advocates of early childhood education hopes to present a proposal that would seek state dollars to help pay for community-based preschool.
It would be the third straight year that a request for preschool funding has come before the Legislature. For the past two years, and in earlier years, lawmakers were unwilling to put up money. They were concerned that state-supported preschool would trample on parents’ rights and responsibilities to take care of early childhood education needs in their own families, and they did not want to risk pulling money out of public education to support it.
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“This is one of the tallest mountains any of us can climb in Idaho when it comes to policy,” said Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of 135 current and former CEOs.
But Gramer thinks he sees a route to the summit. For the past several months, he and other advocates pursued a plan for 4-year-olds that they think dovetails with Idaho’s values. It includes:
• Voluntary participation by families, as earlier plans proposed.
• Control by local communities, which must come up with half the money to run a program. The state would pay the other half.
• Early childhood education standards set by the state.
• Resources, such as educational software for parents, who want to do their own pre-K teaching at home.
“It’s local people coming together to figure out the solution,” Gramer said. “Not a central, state-run school-readiness program.”
This latest iteration has drawn the interest of one of state-funded preschool’s biggest critics: state Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. Thayn said he ran for the Legislature a decade ago in part to squash the notion of state-supported, school-based preschool.
“What I like is this ... community-based thing where the state kicks in some matching funds, but the community decides what it looks like,” he said.
He is also attracted to the home-based part of the program, which would provide parents with resources such as technology to help their children.
Supporters also briefed state Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the Senate Education Committee chairman. Mortimer said he wants a more detailed analysis of what is available in Idaho for early childhood education and how deploying state dollars would make a difference.
“When it comes to spending money, we do have to really be careful,” he said.
He wants to be sure the state would not harm the investment it is putting into public education as part of reform efforts begun in 2013 that are leading to increased pay for teachers and restoring funds to districts whose budgets were cut during the recession.
Gramer and others are meeting with stakeholders, including lawmakers, to listen to concerns and press their case. They point to research showing that 46 percent of children entering kindergarten in Idaho each year lack pre-reading and other skills to begin learning. They note that a third of Idaho’s fourth-graders struggle with reading when they need to be reading to learn.
They say what while lawmakers contend that early childhood education is a family issue, 65 percent of parents work outside the home and may not have time or resources to provide the education they would like.
“Parents have one choice: Put their kids into some kind of pre-K situation that may not have intentional learning for kindergarten,” Gramer said. “We want to give parents more choices.”
Despite the statistics, lawmakers dismissed two attempts by State Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, over the past two years to launch preschool pilots with a combination of state and private money. Kloc said last week that he has stepped aside as the coalition works toward drafting legislation.
The latest idea is based largely on a program in Mississippi. Lawmakers there appropriated $3 million in matching funds to help community-based full-day preschool programs in 11 communities serving 2,000 children, many of them in rural areas, said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit public policy group.
Community support comes from a variety of places: schools, Head Start, United Way, foundations and local people wanting to improve education. The program has just completed its first full year, and Canter is awaiting assessment results to see how well students have done.