Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Idaho investment in high-quality early learning is a no-brainer

One of the fundamental values that Idahoans hold dear is that all people, especially our children, deserve a fair chance to achieve the American dream. The trouble is that value is not a reality for too many of our children.

Only 54 percent of Idaho children have the reading skills needed to begin learning when they enter kindergarten. This is akin to a road race where half of the runners are lined up at the starting gate and the other half are starting from a mile back.

The chances of the half not ready for kindergarten ever catching up with their peers is statistically low and the future for many of them is not very bright.

Kids who are not ready to learn are more likely to struggle in math and reading, drop out of school and end up on social services or in the criminal justice system. The probability is increased that they will not go to college and obtain a good family-wage job.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Studies consistently show that high-quality early learning can prepare children for kindergarten. That’s because 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life.

For the past 16 years the Basin School District has funded an early education program. The data shows that this has been a wise investment.

A review of district test scores indicates that 52 percent of the students enrolled in this pre-K program were advanced in reading based on the state assessment compared to 19 percent who were not enrolled. In math, 41 percent of the pre-K students were advanced on the assessment compared to 30 percent of students who were not enrolled in pre-K.

The problem is most Idaho children do not have access to this kind of quality pre-K. Idaho is one of only six states without preschool funding.

The families with financial means usually ensure their children receive quality early learning. Unfortunately, most families don’t have the financial resources to give their children this opportunity. And with nearly 60 percent of families having parents working, many can’t provide early learning opportunities at home.

From strictly an economic standpoint, early learning is a no-brainer. One dollar invested in early learning can save at least $2 on educational remediation, social services and incarceration. That doesn’t count the higher tax revenue and economic development the state would derive from a more educated workforce.

If you took this return on investment to any business leader, they would seize it in a heartbeat.

There is a misconception that we are talking about simply extending the public school system. The fact is, high-quality early learning can occur in the home, in programs run by churches, the YMCA, Head Start, and by private providers. It is voluntary, so parents choose the best approach for their children.

The bottom line is every child deserves an equal opportunity to the American dream, regardless of their family’s income. No one should be left at the starting gate.

Idahoans get it. A recent poll by Idaho Politics Weekly said 69 percent agreed we need quality pre-K. Only 28 percent disagreed. Opinions vary widely on what pre-K should look like and that’s OK because there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as long as all options get children ready to learn.

On May 4, the Andrus and McClure Centers are sponsoring an early learning conference. The goal is to facilitate a nonpartisan dialogue on the subject, whether children are cared for at home or in another setting. Ultimately this conversation is aimed at identifying principles for an Idaho approach to increasing the share of young children who enter school with the skills they need for success.

You can register by going to the websites for the McClure or Andrus centers. I hope you seize this opportunity to join the discussion about early learning in Idaho.

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.