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First day of kindergarten

Tammy Petersen gives directions to students in her afternoon kindergarten class Thursday at Sawtooth Elementary School in Twin Falls.

The children of Idaho have some catching up to do in education.

A budget passed by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Tuesday is a step toward closing our education gap. Now it just needs to pass the House, Senate and Governor’s desk.

The budget, for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, includes a statewide rollout of a new version of the Idaho Reading Indicator. The program places an emphasis on reading readiness for students in kindergarten through third grade. The program, which would replace the state’s 20-year-old reading standards, is already a pilot project in 50 schools, and feedback has been promising.

State Superintendent Sherry Ybarra issued a statement Tuesday that thanked the committee for passing the budget request and said the IRI “gives a more detailed view than ever before of the students’ reading readiness and where they need assistance.” Lt. Gov. Brad Little raved about the program Tuesday in a meeting with the Times-News, saying the response from educators has been overwhelmingly positive.

Idaho’s shortcomings in early childhood education have been well-documented. The Gem State is one of the last in the country to still spend no money on pre-kindergarten programs, and a 2016 Kids Count survey identified Idaho as having the highest percentage in the nation of young children who aren’t in preschool.

If lawmakers insist on leaving early childhood education up to parents — which means plenty of children are just falling behind instead — they should ensure that those children don’t stay behind once they reach kindergarten.

The Idaho Reading Indicator tests students twice a year, in the spring and the fall, on reading proficiency. The goal is to compile data through the tests that identifies which students are falling behind, before those students are too far behind to ever catch up. The budget passed JFAC with a vote of 16-3. Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, was one of the three no votes.

As Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said Tuesday, this test is not an end-all solution to educating Idahoans. It is just one tool. Still, early returns indicate that it’s an effective one.

Reducing the number of children whose reading skills fall behind their peers statewide and nationwide is good for everyone, not just for those students. Its impact extends well beyond education, improving the state’s future workforce and economy. When our children fall behind, we fall behind as a state.

Many Idaho students are already at a disadvantage from the moment they step foot in a school for the first time. Time cannot be wasted once they do, lest they fall further behind. We urge lawmakers to pass this budget and enact the new version of the Idaho Reading Indicator statewide.

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