TWIN FALLS — Another legislative session is winding down without movement toward state-funded preschool.
Idaho is among six U.S. states that don’t offer public preschool programs.
Early childhood education advocates say the lack of state-funded preschool is holding Idaho children back. But opponents say it’s the responsibility of parents, not the government, to prepare children for school.
State legislators have expressed concerns about the large price tag of implementing a program, and the impact on school facilities and the already-existing teacher shortage.
“We know this is a long haul,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. “We know this is certainly a marathon and not a sprint. I think the interest is beginning to bubble.”
But with no traction during this year’s legislative session, what’s next? Is there a chance a proposal will arise during the 2018 session?
Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho Board of Education, said he has no doubt the topic will come back in future years. State legislators, he added, are being “very deliberate in their thought process.”
In February, an 18-member coalition pushing for state-funded preschool — along with Lt. Gov. Brad Little — gave a presentation to education committee members.
The hearing was organized by Oppenheimer, Idaho Business for Education and Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise. They didn’t offer specifics about what the state should do and a bill wasn’t introduced by legislators.
But the hearing about state-funded preschool was different than those in the past, Oppenheimer said. “This one allowed us to bring in different voices.”
Speakers included three superintendents whose school districts have a preschool program, business leaders, a preschool teacher, kindergarten teacher and retired Navy admiral.
Law enforcement and prosecuting attorney representatives talked about research showing children who have access to a high-quality preschool program “are less likely to commit crimes down the road,” Oppenheimer said.
The Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children recently received a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Money will be used for research, including polling and focus groups, in Idaho communities about people’s perceptions about early childhood education.
“We feel like we need that information to move forward,” Oppenheimer said.
After analyzing the research, “I think that’s going to tell us a lot about the future of the direction we’ll go,” she said.
The association has also been working on a piece of legislation that provides families with preschool choices, Oppenheimer said, such as a combination of in-home and out-of-home programs. “We will continue to work on that.”
Idaho has the highest percentage in the nation of young children who aren’t in preschool, according to the 2016 Kids Count data book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The Gem State doesn’t require students to attend preschool or kindergarten.
In total, 69 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds weren’t in school in 2012-14, according to the report.
State-funded preschool has been a topic for years in both the House and Senate education committees.
State legislators considered a $1.4 million preschool pilot program during the 2015 session, but the proposal didn’t move forward.
The conversation goes beyond preschool, Youde said, to include whether to fund full-day instead of half-day kindergarten.
As for funding preschool, he said, it would be a big change.
Legislators are worried about the cost, he said, especially considering kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education already makes up about 48 percent of the state’s overall budget.
Other issues: “Would it be mandatory for every school district to offer it?” Youde questioned. Plus, school districts would incur expenses and have to find facility space. Others wonder whether there are enough qualified preschool teachers.
More communities and school districts are looking at ways to move forward with offering preschool, Oppenheimer said, but they need state money.
Currently, Idaho families either pay for private preschool or do without it for their child.
There are some exceptions, such as for children from low-income households, those who have disabilities or developmental delays, or are from a migrant family.
The College of Southern Idaho’s Head Start/Early Head Start program serves more than 400 south-central Idaho children from low-income families or who have disabilities. But there aren’t enough seats to serve every child who meets requirements.
A handful of Magic Valley school districts offer preschool programs — often, using federal funding or grants. But most of the programs are often focused on specific groups of students.
The Twin Falls School District, for example, offers developmental preschool and migrant preschool.
The Blaine County School District offers preschool on a sliding fee scale. Murtaugh Elementary School has preschool for all 4-year-olds and an all-day kindergarten class.
Even while those local programs take hold, supporters of public preschool say it could be years before Idaho embraces a statewide program.