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Editorial: Idaho preschool funding long overdue

Idaho is among 10 states that have failed to adopt publicly funded preschools, and Washington’s progress was slowed by the recession. But advocates are hoping to tap healthier budgets as legislatures in both states convene.

Idaho Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, is pushing a bill to finance five preschool classrooms under a three-year pilot project. Private funding would cover 55 percent of the proposed $1.4 million budget, with the state picking up the rest. How far is the state behind on this issue? Conservative Oklahoma started its pilot program in 1980, and now every 4-year-old in the state can attend preschool for free. Last year, Mississippi became the last state in the South to start a pre-kindergarten program. It plans to spend $50 million over 15 years to phase one in.

Meanwhile, Kloc is hoping to squeeze about $600,000 out of the Idaho Legislature to demonstrate what’s already been established: preschools are the best investment in education. It’s apparent from past objections that Idaho legislators need to switch off the “Ozzie and Harriet” reruns and pick up census reports on 21st-century family arrangements. Lawmakers can wish for a return to yesteryear, when father worked and mother stayed home to educate the toddlers, but the reality is that single mothers outnumber stay-at-home parents by two-to-one. And in most two-parent households, both work.

That means a lot of young children are with someone other than their parents during the day, so it makes sense to prepare them for educational success.

Before Washingtonians feel smug, note that only about 30 percent of eligible children in low-income households are in preschool. It’s one of the lowest enrollment rates in the country, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Plus, full-day kindergarten only recently became available. So it’s no coincidence that the state has struggled more than most to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and the rest.

With that in mind, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, have introduced legislation to improve the quality of preschool instruction and provide more slots for children in low-income households. Dubbed the Early Start Act of 2014, the bill would take the Working Connections welfare program and transform it into an educational effort under the Department of Early Learning. Financial incentives would be offered to preschools to attain a high-quality rating and then lengthen their hours of instruction. The goal is to have 80 percent of subsidized children in classrooms by 2020. The tentative price tag is $10 million.

Research shows that for every dollar spent on high-quality preschools, states can reap anywhere from $8 to $17 in savings because students are less likely to become societal burdens. Graduation rates go up; incarceration rates go down.

As other states have demonstrated, early learning can be a bipartisan issue embraced by educational and business leaders. Idaho must get started, and Washington needs to hit the accelerator.

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