Advocates scratching their heads as unapproved preschool grant lingers

As lawmakers withdrew from Idaho’s capital city Thursday — at least temporarily — the fate of a much-debated $6 million early education grant remained in question, just as it has for over two months.

When the Senate voted late Wednesday night to adjourn for the year, or sine die, the House did not. The chamber recessed indefinitely but remained in session through a maneuver that comes “without precedent” in the state, an Attorney General’s opinion said. If the move stands, the House could call a floor meeting at any time through New Year’s Eve of this year, giving a last long-shot bid to resuscitate the grant some daylight.

But representatives have said their temporary recess without pay is geared at giving legislators another swing in two areas: spending and directing use of federal coronavirus relief money and reacting to Census data that will be released later this year.

Does that mean the grant is dead for the session?

Preschoolers in a Boise Pre-K program listen to librarian Abbie Netz read a book. Sami Edge/Idaho Education News

Thursday afternoon, Idaho School Boards Association Government Affairs Director Quinn Perry answered the same way other Statehouse watchers did: “I don’t know.”

The three-year grant would give the state authority to spend $6 million each year on early childhood education. This year’s approval bill, still in limbo, would have covered the first year. But House leadership says the proposal didn’t have the votes to move forward.

The grant was previously shot down in the House, like many education bills this session, at the petitioning of conservatives and the Idaho Freedom Foundation. The Senate narrowly voted to bring back a new version, which had intent language banning the feared social justice teachings and indoctrination that originally toppled the bill.

An uncertain outlook

Even though the House basically deadlocked on the grant in March — and Aaron von Ehlinger, an opponent, is no longer in the House — House Speaker Scott Bedke said some lawmakers had changed their opinions on the grant. He called it “fluidity.”

“Quite literally, the votes were not there,” Bedke, R-Oakley, told reporters Thursday.

Republican Gov. Brad Little lobbied the House to reconsider the grant on Twitter, Wednesday, and Democrats made a failing attempt at instigating a vote hours later.

“We just don’t have enough seats,” But House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said, at a Thursday press conference.

“I guess that’s once conceivable benefit of recessing rather than adjourning,” the Boise Democrat added.

A deal between the House and Senate was struck to reconsider the grant, said Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, a Ketchum senator. But a cross-rotunda agreement was never made, by Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma’s account: “There was no deal,” she told reporters Thursday.

Weighing ‘all our options’

With queries hanging, the grant’s would-be administrator, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, is “trying to figure out what all (its) options are.”

Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer said it’s not completely clear that the grant required the Legislature’s approval in the first place; $3.3 million was already awarded and spent without legislative approval, to research the need for early education funding and compile a needs assessment. The AEYC is looking into vague federal rules, which could allow the funding to go through.

The grant was placed before the Legislature “in good faith” with the expectation that it would pass as others have across the country, Oppenheimer said. It’s also unclear whether rejecting the grant would jeopardize the next two years of funding.

If an opportunity presents itself, pressure to OK the grant could again mount, this time from the school boards association.

“If we get word that they’re going to reconvene for the purpose of taking up the grant, I would absolutely convene my government affairs committee to take a position,” Perry said.

She noted that although ISBA never formally took a position on the grant, that was the result of a “capacity issue.” While many ISBA members individually advocated for the grant, Perry said, and her lobbying organization is a member of Ready Idaho, a preschool advocacy group.

If the grant is never approved, the State Board of Education is “under the impression” the money will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, spokesman Mike Keckler told EdNews Thursday. The money’s destination isn’t totally clear, Oppenheimer said.

In the meantime, the AEYC is seeking other funding sources to supplement Idaho preschool funding.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.

About Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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