Idaho pre-K enrollment lags near bottom nationally

Idaho’s pre-K enrollment numbers rank among the nation’s lowest — and even lag in comparison to the handful of other states that have no state-funded pre-K.

Those dismal findings come from the National Institute for Early Education Research, a New Brunswick, N.J.-based organization focused on pre-K.

In a new report, “The State of Preschool 2014,” the organization compares enrollment in Head Start, special education and state-funded pre-K. The group’s Idaho findings:

  • Only 1,569 of the state’s 3-year-olds were enrolled in federal- or state-funded Head Start or special education programs in 2013-14. That makes up 6.8 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds — and represents the lowest percentage in the nation.
  • Idaho’s numbers improve for 4-year-olds, but not by much. Statewide, 2013-14 enrollment in Head Start and special education increased to 3,081. This accounted for 12.9 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds — only Utah and Wyoming had a lower enrollment rate. Like Idaho, Utah and Wyoming were among 10 states that did not have pre-K programs in place in 2013-14. In other words, Idaho’s enrollment for 4-year-olds did not just rank No. 49 among all 50 states and the District of Columbia; it also ranked eighth among the states without a statewide pre-K program.

And Idaho could remain mired at or near the bottom of the national rankings, at least for the foreseeable future. While pre-K pilot bills have failed to get out of Idaho’s House Education Committee the past two sessions, other states have launched or expanded pre-K programs. This leaves Idaho one of only six states without a pre-K program.

For example, the institute’s report credits the 2014 Utah Legislature with passing a pay-for-success contracts law to partner with private entities that offer pre-K. (Idaho passed a similar contracts law in 2015, and the nonprofit Lee Pesky Early Learning Center is looking at applying the concept to reading instruction.)

Other states have taken a more conventional approach to launching pre-K. The institute report also notes that Hawaii, Mississippi and North Dakota have passed pre-K pilots since 2013-14; the North Dakota pilot passed in April.

For pre-K programs nationally, 2013-14 represented a possible “return to growth,” according to the report. Funding increased by $120 million, when adjusted for inflation — but this does not make up for pre-K cuts during the recession. Nearly $500 million were cut from pre-K programs in 2010-11.

Nationally, pre-K enrollment increased slightly in 2013-14, by about 8,500 students. More than 1.3 million children are enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program.

“State pre-K programs may have turned a corner in 2013-2014, but progress remains slow,” the report says.

While a pre-K pilot bill gained little traction in the Idaho Statehouse again this session, the debate appears to be picking up.

Sherri Ybarra
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra speaks to the House Education Committee March 30.

About 400 people attended a pre-K conference in Boise last week — co-sponsored by Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy and the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research. Attendees heard about the fledgling Utah and Mississippi pre-K programs, and heard a surprising prediction from state Sen. Steven Thayn, an Emmett Republican who has opposed past pre-K efforts. “I think we’ll see something happen this next legislative session.”

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra has discussed the idea of getting federal funding for pre-K in Idaho, as an element of the state’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind education law. “We often talk about jump-starting kids into college, but we don’t talk about jump-starting kids into kindergarten,” Ybarra told the House Education Committee in March.