A global view of Idaho’s pre-K debate

When states debate pre-K, they shouldn’t just look locally. Or even at other states.

They should look globally, says W. Steven Barnett, a national expert in pre-K.

They should consider why Shanghai, China, is creating universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, staffed by college-educated teachers. China is a poorer country that aspires to be a wealthy country, and its leaders see pre-K as part of the answer.

“Our world has changed,” said Barnett, founder and senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Barnett was in Boise Monday for a lecture hosted by Boise State University and co-sponsored by Idaho’s Association for the Education of Young Children, Idaho Business for Education and the University of Idaho. He is speaking at 6 p.m. at the Simplot Ballroom at BSU’s Student Union Building.

Barnett’s appearance comes as advocates are continuing their push for state pre-K funding. While Idaho remains one of only six states without pre-K funding, the AEYC released a statewide poll in January that revealed supermajority public support for the idea.

But Barnett’s lecture comes in the midst of another legislative session that’s unlikely to yield any movement on pre-K. No pre-K bill has even been introduced this legislative session. And once again, Gov. Butch Otter and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra have requested no funding for pre-K.

While Idaho has resisted pre-K funding, other states are investing heavily. A decade ago, only two states were talking about universal, state-funded pre-K. Now, numerous states are looking at the idea.

An economist by training, Barnett sees a pragmatic reason for the move. Pre-K advocates see early education as a long-term investment, which will help states produce qualified workers, and help states attract employers that need skilled employees.

Barnett draws a strong connection between quality pre-K and life after high school — and Idaho’s “60 percent” goal. Idaho wants 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or professional certificate, and that will require getting more at-risk students to continue their education after high school. But now, too many students in poverty show up unprepared for kindergarten, Barnett says, and they never make up the gap.

But for all parents — regardless of their income — quality pre-K is hard to find. The only way to provide quality, and ensure equity, is to make a long-term investment in a universal system.

“I don’t see another way other than public support,” Barnett said. “(But) the public’s going to get paid back for that.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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