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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.

Report: More Idaho Children Live In Poverty, Education Outcomes Slide

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The number of Idaho kids living in poverty has risen to 21 percent, that's a 3 percent increase since 2005. That means at least 87,000 Idaho children were living in poverty in 2012. The poverty statistic is just one of the findings in the annual Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Kids Count report ranks states in four categories of child well-being: economic, education, health and family and community. Ranking 21st among states, Idaho does best in family and community, because of things like a low teen birth rate, and a relatively small number of children living in single-parent households.

Idaho showed improvement in all measures under the health category, ranking 20th among states. Idaho's standing worsened in all measures under economic well-being, including children in poverty, and ranked 20th in this category.

Idaho’s lowest ranking came in education, dropping from 29th in 2013 to 33rd. Kathleen Budge teaches education at Boise State University and studies the impact of poverty on schools. Budge says she can’t say definitively that there’s a link between Idaho’s increasing child poverty rate and decreasing education ranking.

“I would not be surprised if there was one,” Budge says. “We do know that there’s a strong co-relation between student achievement and poverty.”

Things like increased stress and poor nutrition, that often come with poverty, can make learning difficult.

Still, Idaho is making improvements in some of the report’s education measures. Those include 8th grade math scores and high school graduation rates.

Idaho’s sliding national standing comes largely because other states are making bigger improvements. For example, 67 percent of Idaho 4th graders were not proficient at reading in 2013. That percentage hasn't changed in more than a decade. But Idaho's standing among states has dropped from 19th in 2005 to 33rd in 2013. 

Another reason Idaho fares poorly in education, in the eyes of the foundation, is preschool. Two-thirds of Idaho kids don’t go to preschool, one of the lowest rates in the country. Budge says if more Idaho kids had access to early childhood education, the state would probably do better in performance measures. While most states have public preschool, Idaho lawmakers have rejected it several times

“It’s a contentious topic in Idaho and it’s unfortunate,” Budge says. “It is absolutely well researched that early childhood will mitigate against many of the intervening factors that are related to poverty.”

Idaho Kids Count 2014
Credit Kids Count Report
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Follow reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam | Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio