Advocates hope to open 10 pre-K model schools across Idaho

Armed with a new $500,000 private grant, a statewide advocacy group hopes to bankroll a series of preschool model projects across Idaho.

The “Preschool the Idaho Way” project, announced Wednesday, is an attempt to break the longstanding impasse over early education in Idaho.

Grants could fund 10 model programs statewide. But the grant doesn’t eliminate the need for statewide funding, said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.

Beth Oppenheimer

“At some level, the state is going to have to start to have some skin in the game here,” Oppenheimer said in an interview.

Idaho is one of only six states in the country that does not fund pre-K. Even proposals to launch pilot programs have found little traction in the Legislature.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant will allow Oppenheimer’s group to bypass the Statehouse, at least in the short run.

AEYC hopes to raise matching dollars, to allow local groups to plan and roll out model pre-K programs.

The money could go into collaborative pre-K programs — which could be based in a church, a YMCA or a high-quality day care. Oppenheimer says her group is not overly concerned about who heads up a program.

“We’re more concerned about what (a program) looks like,” she said.

Idaho has some experience with model pre-K programs that operate without state funding. The Boise School District’s pilot pre-K program receives funding from City Hall. The rural Basin School District has used supplemental property tax levies and federal dollars to keep a pre-K program open.

But none of these local models have a reliable longterm source of money, Oppenheimer said. To keep these programs going — and to take promising pre-K approaches into new communities — the state will need to step in with funding.

The Kellogg Foundation — based in Battle Creek, Mich., and founded by breakfast cereal magnate Will Keith Kellogg — is a well-heeled backer of pre-K programs. And the foundation is no stranger to the Idaho pre-K debate.

In late 2016, the foundation gave AEYC a three-year, $450,000 grant in hopes of building public support for Idaho pre-K. The AEYC then commissioned a statewide poll, which revealed that vast majorities of voters and parents of preschool-aged children support state-funded pre-K. The AEYC released the numbers at a Statehouse news conference during the opening week of the 2018 legislative session, but no pre-K bills surfaced during the session.

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