American Falls parents and educators lament possible loss of early-learning grant

AMERICAN FALLS — Whitney Lankfrod had spent weeks prepping for a series of spring workshops aimed at helping parents in her school district get their kids ready for kindergarten.

Then, she received an unexpected email.

Hailey Michalk, a project director for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, sent Lankford and other parents and educators across the state some news: House Republicans had just killed a bill that would have allowed the State Board of Education to receive $6 million in federal grants to support early childhood education programs across the state over three years.

The bill included funding for a series of “Ready! for Kindergarten” workshops Lankford, an American Falls parent and volunteer, was working on in partnership with the association and local educators.

The association would not “at this time” be able to continue partnerships tied to the workshops due to a loss of funds, Michalk wrote, attaching a screenshot of lawmakers who opposed the bill.

The $6 million included in the bill is not dead, per se. On Tuesday, two weeks after the House narrowly rejected the federal grant, a new one emerged, setting up another possible House floor showdown on early education.

Lawmakers could still approve the grant, though some still argue it would expose preschoolers to a “social just curriculum” and strap schools with maintaining new federally grant-funded startups.

American Falls Superintendent Randy Jensen and other local educators dismissed those claims.

“We chose the curriculum solely for American Falls children,” said Tennille Call, another local parent who helps with the program. “This is curriculum chosen by local parents for local kids.”

Parent workshops aren’t the only thing in jeopardy in American Falls and other parts of the state, Lankford learned after reading Michalk’s email.  The rural East Idaho district has spent nearly three years building an early childhood education program that offers free training for parents and preschool teachers and has provided dozens of scholarships to local preschools.

The district had planned on using some $250,000 from the early-learning grant to sustain the program in the coming years, Jensen told EdNews Tuesday.

Opposition to the bill leaves “a lot of gray area” in terms of funding the local initiative, Jensen added.

Killing the first bill was also “devastating” to early learning efforts in at least 14 other communities, which were using the first phase of the federal grant to develop early-education programs, Idaho AEYC Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer told EdNews hours after the House vote.

Losing the $6 million wouldn’t necessarily mean a definitive end to American Falls’ program, Jensen acknowledged Tuesday. He’s still assessing how the district might use federal COVID-19 relief funds to sustain it if lawmakers can’t find a way to reinstate the grant.

Still, Jensen lamented the situation.

“The money was already there,” he said, pointing to what he considers to be a disconnect between lawmakers’ concerns over the bill and how educators had actually planned to use funds from the grant.

Call also criticized concerns from lawmakers, and recently put her own concerns in an email to Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava, who, along with the school district’s other Representative, Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, opposed the bill.

Call acknowledged Andrus’ belief that spending time with parents is the best thing for young children. But being able to stay home with their kids is a “luxury” many American Falls parents don’t have, she said. “Our program is a way to especially help those families.”

Armstrong told EdNews Wednesday that he’s been inclined to vote against “all new programs and spending since the passage of expanded medicaid,” but that he was also unaware of the “extraordinary benefits” American Falls’ early-learning program has had on the community prior to voting to kill the bill.

“Currently, the governor is attempting to get it back in another form, and so, within financial reasonableness, I will vote for it,” he said.

Andrus did not respond to questions about his vote to kill the bill, or whether he would change it if given a chance to again consider approving the funds.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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