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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawmakers propose funding pre-kindergarten classrooms

Three-year project would involve five schools

BOISE – Though support is growing in Idaho to join the ranks of states that include early-childhood education in their public education systems, many Idaho lawmakers remain philosophically opposed to state-supported pre-school.

“Anything that is bringing institutional education to younger children is problematic to me,” said state Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. “This is a step removing the children from the household.”

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, agreed. “I’m not in favor of starting kids any earlier,” she said. “Each kid is individual, and each parent is individual, and they need to decide what the kids need.”

At least 40 other states have concluded that learning in the earliest years – before kindergarten – is important enough to make a state priority. In Idaho, Democratic state Rep. Hy Kloc of Boise and GOP state Rep. Doug Hancey of Rexburg are sponsoring legislation to take a baby step toward that. Their bill would create a three-year pilot project that would partially fund five preschool classrooms around the state.

“This works; we know it works,” Kloc said. He’s hoping the pilot project would demonstrate that to parents, communities and lawmakers, and prompt Idaho to take the concept further in the future. The program would be entirely voluntary, both for families and for schools.

The state would pick up 45 percent of the cost of the pilot project, or $192,000 a year; 55 percent would come from private grants. When it was unveiled at a statehouse news conference last week, backers included Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, who said studies show children who get quality preschool education are less likely to commit crimes later. Nonprofit backers of the plan included the United Way and the YMCA.

“This is such a critical issue facing Idaho, and it’s past time that we did something about it,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, who also participated in the event. “Today in Idaho, over half of our children are not ready or prepared to enter kindergarten or first grade.”

But Idaho has long been averse to early-childhood education proposals. It was only after a multiyear legislative fight under then-Gov. Cecil Andrus that Idaho began offering kindergarten in its schools in 1975; it remains voluntary to this day.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said that in his view, pre-K programs “allow parents to disengage rather than engage.” Thayn said he’s unconvinced most Idaho kids need pre-K; he believes parents or other relatives can educate youngsters at home.

But Oppenheimer said that view overlooks the reality that in many families both parents work outside the home. “It’s unfortunate that we are still pretending to be a society where we have a mother at home and a father that’s working,” she said.

A 2012 report from the Children’s Defense Fund found that 58.4 percent of Idaho children have all their parents in the labor force.

This year’s preschool bill hasn’t been introduced. Kloc submitted it to the House Education Committee, whose chairman, Reed DeMordaunt, said his panel’s immediate focus is 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education stakeholders’ task force for improving K-12 public schools. “I’m hopeful that later in the session, after we work through this, there’ll be an opportunity to look at his bill,” said DeMordaunt, a Republican from Eagle.

The task force proposals are far-reaching, from restoring millions in school budget cuts to establishing a new, more generous teacher pay system.

DeMordaunt requested changes in the pre-K bill to add more parental involvement measures, and Kloc and Hancey added those.

But House Speaker Scott Bedke, an Oakley Republican, said he’d have “a hard time supporting an expansion of the education system when I’m told we’re not adequately funding what we have.”

Personally, Bedke said, he’s “comfortable with the kids leaving the house to go to a public, structured education as kindergartners, but not before.”

School districts in North Idaho now offer some developmental preschool programs for children with disabilities, paid for by federal funds.

Shawn Woodward, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, said children entering kindergarten “are all over the map when it comes to where they’re at academically, socially and emotionally.” Preschool would level that playing field, he said.

Woodward thinks it also would save the state money in the long run. “Much of the issues that we deal with are readiness issues when they get into school. So we’re pouring lots of resources into the K-1-2 areas that we wouldn’t have to if there was more support at those formative years.”