If Idaho is going to rescue many of its youngest children from being thwarted in life by a poor start in school, it cannot count on its Statehouse.
Look instead to places such as Kendrick-Juliaetta and Deary-Bovill. As the Lewiston Tribune’s Justyna Tomtas reported Sunday, these communities stopped depending on governors and legislators to provide the preschool so many Idaho children need.
They’re acting now — with good reason.
Their state government has been virtually immutable on this issue.
The nation is down to its last half-dozen states that do not invest in some form of early childhood education. Joining Idaho on that list are New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.
But could any state be more defiant in its refusal to act?
In 2011, then-state schools Superintendent Tom Luna even refused to apply for a share of federal money that would have merely improved the training of people occupied in private preschools. Three years later, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter did much the same thing, declining to ask for a federal grant that would improve private day cares, expand Head Start and examine how the state’s youngest children were spending their time.
In the intervening years, the situation has grown, if anything, more desperate.
Idaho is a poor state. Many of its working parents cannot afford high-quality early childhood education. Earlier this year, the annual KidsCount survey reported 68 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds were not attending some sort of preschool — tying the Gem State with North Dakota for the worst ranking in the country.
So when Idaho’s 5-year-olds show up for the first day of kindergarten, 49.8 percent of them don’t know the fundamentals — letters, numbers, shapes or some familiarity with text — let alone have some experience in getting along with other children.
And if that child comes from a minority population or a disadvantaged background, the numbers plummet.
Among Idaho’s Hispanic or Latino population, 25.3 percent came to kindergarten ready to learn.
Those with limited English proficiency tested at 18.2 percent. Of the children living in poverty, 36.9 percent had the prerequisites.
After a year of kindergarten, many catch up — but some do not, trapping them in a cycle of frustration and failure that continues throughout their school years.
Is it any wonder Idaho’s high school graduation rate is lower than all but seven states?
Is it really stunning that the state’s “go-on” rate — the percentage of high school graduates who continue their education — is frozen around 42 percent?
Does it really surprise you that an overwhelming majority of Idahoans see the need for preschool? Earlier this year, a poll commissioned by the Idaho Association for the Education of Young People found 76 percent of voters — and 80 percent of parents — want the state to do more.
In Kendrick-Juliaetta, kindergarten teacher Angie Tweit got tired of waiting.
“Every year, kids are coming in already behind,” Tweit told Tomtas. “Some kids have a two-year gap, like they’re two years delayed, and how do you make that up? You need time to develop those skills.”
Schools can’t spend their share of state dollars for preschool. That forces Tweit and her colleagues to rely upon money her school district generates through local taxes, grants and donations.
They cobbled together a program using a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant.
The model for this was Bovill Elementary’s preschool program, which spends dollars White Pine School Districts’ property taxpayers provide.
Elsewhere across the state, preschool programs are popping up in Caldwell, Boise and Idaho City.
At the same time, Idaho Association for the Education of Young People has secured a $500,000 two-year grant through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation aimed at sprouting preschool programs in more communities. Year one focuses on planning and technical assistance; year two will involve allocating seed money.
Much of this is built on a precarious financial foundation of grants, donations and local tax funds that may not survive from year to year. But it is building an infrastructure and demonstrating the art of the possible to Idaho parents.
Eventually, they will demand their state steps in.
A familiar pattern is shaping up in Idaho. Intransigence at the Capitol is fueling ingenuity at the grassroots — whether it’s human rights ordinances various cities enacted to prevent the kind of discrimination lawmakers tolerate or initiative campaigns to seek health coverage for the working poor whose plight lawmakers ignored.
Sometimes it takes the people to lead before their elected government will follow.