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Idaho View

Idaho View: Tuition-based kindergarten is class segregation. It’s on the Legislature to solve it

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Idaho Supreme Court building

The Idaho Supreme Court’s building in Boise is shown in this file photo.

It’s welcome news that the Idaho Supreme Court, in a well-reasoned opinion released this week, found grounds to allow a lawsuit challenging tuition for all-day kindergarten to move forward.

Justice Greg Moeller, the author of the unanimous opinion, found that families who are unable to afford a slot in West Ada School District’s tuition-paid full-day kindergarten have standing to sue, based on their allegations that their children have been deprived of an equal education.

“In essence, parents are contending, and have made at least a facial showing, that West Ada is running two separate but unequal kindergarten programs — a full-day program for those who can afford it and a half-day program for those who cannot. Such a claim, which is largely undisputed by West Ada, raises the specter of past constitutional challenges to ‘inherently unequal’ educational systems,” wrote Moeller, citing the famous precedent of Brown v. Board of Education, which found that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

There is significant evidence that early childhood education plays a role in later academic and financial success. Access to that opportunity should not be dependent on a family’s wealth.

West Ada’s policy allows all-day kindergarten to be offered only if there are enough parents who want to sign up their kids, so it’s rather predictable that schools serving lower-income areas are less likely to offer it. And even if a parent can afford the tuition, there is limited capacity in the classes.

Further, it’s rather obvious that lower-income families can be caught in a trap by tuition-based kindergarten: If, even with two incomes, a family can’t afford the tuition, it’s likely one parent would have to quit their job or reduce their work hours in order to provide child care, further reducing the family’s income.

A system that provides better education to children born into fortunate circumstances flies in the face of moral sense, equal opportunity and constitutional principles. It is economic segregation.

So we wish the plaintiffs in this lawsuit success.

Fundamentally, though, this is not a problem that the courts can solve. Courts do not levy taxes or appropriate funds. Only the Legislature can do that.

West Ada does bear some responsibility for the particularly inequitable nature of its kindergarten system. When Idaho Education News surveyed schools across the state in April, it found that 61.5% of kindergartners live in districts that have both half-day and full-day options, but it found only a few districts that fund their full-day programs by charging tuition.

But, more fundamentally, the Idaho Legislature has created this situation by refusing to provide statewide funding for early childhood education, including full-day kindergarten — while the vast majority of states provide not only free kindergarten, but also free preschool.

This has continued to allow Idaho to have the lowest per-pupil state education funding for years, despite regular record-setting budget surpluses. Education funding is easy to sell when there’s an enormous surplus. It’s much harder when doing so would require raising taxes.

This policy failure is political, and there is no obvious indication things will change. Idaho’s Republican supermajority — and a closed primary where spending taxpayer money could make a candidate vulnerable, but failing to fund education does not, despite most Idahoans regularly listing education as a top priority — has produced a Legislature that is not capable of solving real problems.

Until that changes — for example, by large-scale voting of ideological Democrats and independents in the GOP primary to skirt the closed system — add Idaho’s inadequate education funding to the list of problems that will go unsolved. The Legislature will continue to fail to live up to its constitutional duty to “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board members are opinion editor Scott McIntosh, opinion writer Bryan Clark, editor Chadd Cripe, newsroom editors Dana Oland and Jim Keyser and community members J.J. Saldaña and Christy Perry.

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Opinion: Along with fellow U.S. Senator for Idaho Jim Risch, I was proud to support the FY 2022 NDAA when the U.S. Senate passed this important legislation by a vote of 88 to 11 before it was signed into law.

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