BOISE — More kids would stay at home instead of going to kindergarten before they start the first grade, under a bill introduced Tuesday in the Idaho Legislature.
The plan would largely gut the roughly $50 million annual budget for public kindergarten and leave about $17 million for school districts to focus on at-risk students who have not been prepared for the first grade at home by their parents. Students who already have the skills to succeed in first grade could spend as little as three weeks in kindergarten, while districts could offer the full 36 weeks to students who do not yet have those skills under the bill.
A Republican state lawmaker introduced the plan, saying the state needs to decide what it’s trying to accomplish with programs geared at Idaho’s youngest students
“Are we providing daycare or are we providing an academic environment?” said Rep. Steve Thayn. “If we’re paying for daycare, I think we could find some less expensive teachers.”
While Thayn contends his plan would require parents to become more involved with their children’s education, critics say it would force some parents to pay for private kindergarten or, in the case of families where both parents work, force on them to quit their job.
“I interpret this as nothing more than a tax on parents,” said Rep. Brian Cronin, a Boise Democrat who noted that his own children would not be in kindergarten if the plan is adopted. “We’re really just passing costs onto families at a time when families are really struggling.”
Funding for kindergarten programs is under threat in several states as lawmakers try to make up for losses in revenue and plug budget holes. New Jersey, Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania are among states that have considered cuts.
In Idaho, the plan to ax funding for kindergarten is among cost-cutting measures lawmakers are floating amid Idaho’s worsening budget outlook. The governor projected a $35 million shortfall for next year in early January, but that swelled to an estimated $185 million revenue shortfall.
The budget deficit has been trimmed to an estimated $137 million.
Thayn argues the state should cut two-thirds of the public kindergarten budget, saving more than $30 million that could be funneled back into the state general fund and spent filling in public education budget gaps in grades one through 12.
School districts now receiving money for 36 weeks of kindergarten would only get enough money for about 12 weeks, under the plan. They would be given more flexibility in how they spend the remaining and focus a majority of the time on at-risk students, not those who have already been prepared for the first grade by their parents.
Those kids would spend as little as three weeks in kindergarten and then stay at home, where parents could continue to work with them until they start the first grade, Thayn said.
“In this case, we might actually improve the education system by doing a little bit less,” he said.