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Idaho is one of 10 states that doesn't offer public preschool, although two of those states are currently experimenting with pilot programs.Idaho lawmakers have long wrestled over whether to provide a public education to preschool-aged children. Idaho's conservative majority has resisted.But now, the debate could be revived because a freshman Democratic lawmaker has begun working on a plan to implement public pre-k.

State Of Idaho Lags On Preschool, Districts Lead

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

Idaho is one of just 10 states that don’t have state-wide pre-kindergarten education. This week our education reporter Adam Cotterell brings us a series on pre-k in Idaho. Adam joined Morning Edition host Scott Graf to preview this week’s reports.


Scott Graf: You’ll be talking about the pre-k debate in Idaho. Are others talking about this issue?   

Adam Cotterell: Yes. There have been several newspaper op-eds. It’s come up at legislative education listening sessions. Members of the governor’s Task Force for Improving Education have addressed it and members of the public have brought it up to task force members at their public meetings. But most of the talk about pre-k seems to boil down to people asking the question ‘why aren’t we talking about pre-k?’. 

Graf: Has that always been the case?

"Most of the talk about pre-k seems to boil down to people asking the question 'why aren't we talking about pre-k?'"

Cotterell: As listeners will hear this week…around 2007, 2008 it was a hot topic in the news and in the legislature. About that time there were some studies on pre-k in Idaho. For example, Boise State’s Public Policy Center found that the majority of Idahoans thought that government has a responsibility to provide pre-kindergarten education to low-income children.

Graf: In your reporting, you also cite another Boise State study. It’s about pre-k in Idaho but it doesn’t come from the college of education. It comes from some members of the economics department. That seems, perhaps, like an unusual place for a study on pre-k to come from…

Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Another question from the 2008 Boise State Public Policy Center survey about early childhood issues.

Cotterell: Turns out economists are very interested in pre-school. There’s a whole school of thought pioneered by noble prize winner James Heckman. It researches the social outcomes of early education. Heckman and others say early education is the best use of public money. Boise State’s Christine Loucks, one of the authors of the study you mentioned, says spending money on pre-k would actually save Idaho money in the long run.

“We lessen the probability we’re going to have to invest in prisons,” Loucks says. “We increase the probability someone will graduate from high school. We increase the probability someone will graduate from college. We lessen the probability of teenage pregnancy. We lessen the probability of drug addiction…”

Cotterell: That list goes on for a long time.

Graf: What do opponents say?

Cotterell: I didn’t find many people who said they were out-right opponents of statewide pre-k, though we will meet some during the series. I did encounter a lot of skeptics. The top thing they bring up is money. It would be expensive to essentially add another grade to our K-12 system. But you also hear a lot related to another theme. I’ll let Idaho schools’ superintendent Tom Luna articulate it.

“I hear from higher Ed, they could do better if our high schools do better,” Luna says. “But what I hear from our high schools is that our middle schools need to do better. And what our middle schools would tell you is that our elementary schools need to be doing more. And what we hear from many is that it’s a kindergarten issue. And then kindergarten says it’s a pre-k issue.”

Cotterell: The other version of that is ‘They told us kindergarten would solve our problems so we added that. Now they tell us we need pre-k.’

Graf: Do you think Idaho will someday have state wide pre-K?

Cotterell: Well we have a new wild card in the deck. President Obama now says he wants all kids to have access to early education and he’s proposed raising cigarette taxes to do it. But one pre-k advocate says maybe a state system isn’t right for Idaho. The head of Boise State’s special-ed and early childhood education department, who’ll we’ll meet tomorrow, says he likes district-based approaches with multiple funding sources, we’ll go to one of those in Caldwell Thursday.  But economist Christine Loucks says because districts like Caldwell are doing it on their own, the state will eventually step in and create a program.

“If people in Caldwell start to clamor for more early childhood education, and then that spreads to Nampa, and then that spreads to Boise, then I think the state will be involved in early childhood education,” Loucks says. “But I think they’re going to be involved because they lag. It’s not going to be they’re involved because they lead. The leadership’s in Caldwell.”

Graf: So Adam, do you have any unanswered questions from your reporting?

Cotterell: One thing that interests me is that most of the states that don’t have pre-k programs have one thing in common, they are our western neighbors. But it’s not just a red state blue state issue. Some of the states with the most extensive pre-k programs are quite conservative. Those include Texas and Oklahoma. I asked most everyone I’ve spoken to about this why they think the western states might be particularly resistant to state based pre-K. Most people didn’t want to speculate about it, but it’s something I’d like listeners to weigh in on. You can share your thoughts on that on our Facebook page.

Find more stories in our series on preschool in Idaho at these links:

Map: Idaho Is One Of 10 States Without Public Preschool

Idaho School Districts Take On Public Preschool Without State Funding

Why Caldwell Might Represent The Future Of Public Preschool In Idaho

Idaho Would Get $20 Million Under President Obama's Plan To Expand Preschool

Idaho Opposition To Public Preschool Is About Money And Ideology

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