For the first time, Idaho will receive a federal grant to support pre-K and early education programs.
The $3.3 million grant, announced Thursday, will help advocates take stock of existing early education programs, in a state that has long resisted funding pre-K.
“We’re hoping that this is going to give the policymakers the information they have needed for years,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit that will administer the grant on the state’s behalf.
The goal of the grant is to support services for kids from birth to age 5, and not necessarily pre-Ks, Oppenheimer said Thursday.
Pre-K is a sensitive topic in Idaho, one of only four states that does not fund pre-K. And Idaho’s antipathy toward pre-K had even extended to applying for federal grants. Past federal grants were designed to help states start up new pre-K programs, and then-Gov. Butch Otter did not allow the state to apply.
But this time around, the Preschool Development Grant serves a different purpose, and is not designed to expand or build pre-K. And first-year Gov. Brad Little signed off on seeking a share of the money.
“Improving early childhood literacy is one of my top priorities as governor,” Little said in a news release Thursday. “This funding will give educators and kids more tools to strengthen language and literacy prior to starting kindergarten. The earlier our kids start reading, the better chance they have to be proficient by third grade.”
Little endorsed the grant application in the fall, after advocates built a bipartisan coalition behind the idea of researching pre-K in Idaho, Oppenheimer said. That coalition stems from the summer and a New Orleans pre-K summit conducted by the Hunt Institute, a Durham, N.C..-based education nonprofit. Five Idaho lawmakers attended: House Education Committee Chair Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls; Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; Sens. Janie Ward-Engelking and Cherie Buckner-Webb, both D-Boise; and Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City.
The legislators have been on opposite sides in the ongoing Statehouse debate over pre-K. In February, Ehardt was among 10 Republicans who blocked the introduction of a voluntary pre-K bill in House Education. Clow and McCrostie were among four committee members who voted to introduce that bill.
The one-year grant will allow the state to complete five tasks, including a needs assessment; a strategic planning process, based on existing programs; examining ways to maximize parental choice; sharing best practices; and improving the quality of existing programs.
With matching funds — a federal requirement — AEYC will spend $4.7 million on the project.
Disclosure: The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation helped pay for a grant writer for this project. The foundation also funds Idaho Education News.