As other states boost pre-K funding, Idaho misses out on share of federal grants

It’s a final four of sorts, but it has nothing to do with basketball.

Idaho is now one of only four states that does not fund preschool, according to a new report from the Education Commission of the States.

Other states put nearly $7.8 billion into pre-K programs in 2017-18, an increase of more than a quarter billion dollars. Pre-K spending increased in 28 states. Meanwhile, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota and New Hampshire are the only states that do not fund pre-K.

“(Pre-K enjoys) continuing support from both Republican and Democratic governors, legislators and state boards of education,” staffers for the Denver-based ECS said in its brief.

The ECS brief highlighted one of Idaho’s neighbors, and its fledgling early education program.

Montana launched a pre-K pilot program with $3 million in state funding. Students in the first-year pilot “showed a 21 percent overall increase in school readiness,” said the ECS, citing state Department of Public Health and Human Services research. The state received 47 pilot applications, and awarded 17 grants.

Missing out on federal money

Meanwhile, 43 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands shared in more than $241 million in a new round of federal grants designed to help with preschool program planning. (For more about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grants, here’s a recent article from Education Week.)

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While most states received up to $10.6 million apiece, Idaho wasn’t even in the running.

The State Department of Education did not apply, because the Legislature hasn’t allowed the department to spend money on pre-K programs.

“The federal grant requires state cost sharing by covering at least 30 percent of the first year’s funding allocation via non-federal matching funds, cash, or in-kind services,” SDE spokeswoman Kris Rodine said Monday.

All of Idaho’s neighbors received a share of the money, with the exception of Wyoming. On the heels of the launch of its pilot program, Montana received $4.2 million.

Even though New Hampshire, like Idaho, lacks a state-funded pre-K program, the state still received a share of the feds’ money. The University of New Hampshire received a $3.8 million grant.

At Senate Education, a pitch for pre-K

No pre-K bill has surfaced during the first six weeks of Idaho’s 2019 legislative session. And while Gov. Brad Little has made early literacy a cornerstone of his first-year agenda, his plan is to put $26 million into kindergarten through third-grade initiatives, not pre-K.

And while the Idaho School Boards Association supports allowing school districts and charter schools to use state dollars on programs for 4-year-olds, this idea hasn’t gotten a hearing either. In November, ISBA members endorsed a Boise School District resolution on the proposal.

But as ISBA members come to the Statehouse this week for their annual lobbying trip, the group’s president is using the opportunity to talk up early education.

Jennifer Parkins

The Genesee School District offers a pre-K program and all-day kindergarten, another initiative the ISBA supports. The district can use supplemental levy dollars to cover all-day kindergarten, but parents have to pay for the half-day pre-K, trustee Jennifer Parkins told the Senate Education Committee Monday.

Genesee tries to break even on pre-K, but the district will waive fees when needed. “Those are our kids who are at risk,” she said.

Parkins is sold on the results. Last fall, 79 percent of Genesee’s K-3 students scored at grade level on the Idaho Reading Indicator. Statewide, 52 percent of students hit grade-level benchmarks.

“If we can get these kids in our pre-K, I think they benefit so much,” Parkins said.

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