Analysis: Tommy Ahlquist on pre-K, then and now

In 2014, when Boise Democratic Rep. Hy Kloc was pushing a pre-K pilot bill, Tommy Ahlquist was among his allies.

Ahlquist was not then vying for the Republican nomination for governor. The physician and Boise developer was then best known as the builder who filled the infamous vacant “pit” at 8th and Main streets in Downtown Boise. In a guest opinion, Ahlquist said the evidence supporting pre-K is clear, but called the $600,000 pilot bill a reasonable first step to gather data in Idaho.

“Preschool education is one of the few issues important enough to rise above politics,” Ahlquist wrote. “That’s because it affects every person, company and organization in Idaho.”

The Ahlquist guest opinion ran in the Idaho Statesman. It lives on, in all places, on the Idaho Democratic Party’s website.

But in 2017, and now in the election year of 2018, Ahlquist’s position on pre-K appears different.

At a gubernatorial candidates’ forum in Twin Falls Monday, Ahlquist joined Lt. Gov. Brad Little in voicing opposition to state-funded pre-K. Ahlquist’s comments are consistent with what he said in an Idaho Education News interview in August, when he praised pre-K programs but stopped short of endorsing state funding.

Asked about Ahlquist’s pre-K position — and the 2014 guest opinion — Ahlquist campaign manager David Johnston offered a long statement the candidate sent to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank and lobbying group. The statement tries to walk a fine line between embracing the concept of pre-K and committing state dollars to the initiative.

Here’s what Ahlquist told the Freedom Foundation, in full.

“Considering what taxpayers spend on public education in Idaho, we have a long way to go with K-12 education to improve proficiencies, graduation rates and to connect Idaho kids with Idaho jobs. We must stay laser focused on K-12 efforts and not rest until we lead the nation! There is no doubt that children in Idaho have a long way to go in reading proficiency and Pre-K education is critical to their success. Outcomes-based research clearly shows the benefit of Pre-K, the question is what role the government should play? The best results as always come from the private sector. Recently, I have witnessed firsthand a private solution in one of our communities that provides an example of addressing Pre-K without government involvement. This year in Caldwell, thanks to a private collective impact project without any government involvement, pre-K is offered at each elementary without having the state involved. Grassroots efforts that involve the private sector, nonprofits and community organizations built to solve problems will always outperform any government solution. These are exactly the kinds of conservative solutions we need in Idaho. The role of government should be to get out of the way of these efforts and cut any red tape that threatens getting things done.”

What has changed between 2014 and 2018?

Johnston says he doesn’t see a change. Ahlquist supported pre-K and still does, but continues to support local, private sector solutions. And the more Ahlquist learns about education, the more he believes Idaho focus first on fixing the K-12 system, Johnston said.

Ahlquist isn’t the only Republican gubernatorial candidate who seems to be wrestling with the pre-K issue.

In February 2017, Little joined other early education advocates in testifying for pre-K. “The future — both of our quality of life and our economic success — is dependent on this issue,” Little said at the time.

Little has since suggested a block grant proposal that districts could use for pre-K, or other early learning initiatives.

The third big-name Republican in the governor’s race, Rep. Raul Labrador, opposes state funding for pre-K.

The bottom line: Pre-K seems unlikely to get too far at the 2018 Legislature, despite some supportive statewide poll numbers released last week. However, pre-K could be a wedge education issue in 2018, especially in a closed Republican primary on May 15.

As Ahlquist himself wrote in 2014, “When public money enters the (pre-K) conversation, fervent opinions flare.”

That’s one statement that has stood up over time.

More reading: Learn more about the candidates, and stay current on the campaigns, at our elections page.

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