Key senator: Pre-K bill could pass in 2016

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Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, discuss their states’ pre-K laws during a conference in Boise Monday.

It’s a perennial question in Statehouse circles: Will Idaho ever join the growing list of states that funds pre-K?

The answer is yes, says one key legislator. And it may happen sooner than you think.

“I think we’ll see something happen this next legislative session,” said Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, during a daylong seminar Monday.

Co-sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University and the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research, the program was punctuated by success stories. The audience heard from John McFarlane, superintendent of Idaho City’s Basin School District, which has used federal dollars and supplemental levies to keep a rural pre-K program open for 15 years. They heard from policymakers in Utah and Mississippi — two other garnet-red states that have made strides to invest in early education.

Many of the 400 or so people who spent the day in a Boise hotel conference room made no attempt to hide their point of view, applauding speakers as they advocated breaking Idaho’s pre-K impasse. This prevailing sentiment was summarized by Cecil Andrus, the former four-term Idaho governor.

“Right now, our kids are not getting a fair shake,” he said. “They don’t have the opportunity to compete in a global marketplace. … It’s up to us to correct that problem.”

Idaho is now one of only six states that does not fund pre-K — and that number seems to dwindle a bit every year.

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Perhaps one of the more unlikely states to jump into pre-K is Mississippi, which put $3 million into a pilot in 2013. Communities are required to come up with matching funds, and 11 communities did. Advocates are hoping the state doubles its funding in 2016.

Mississippi’s pre-K advocates ran headlong into arguments that should ring familiar to Idahoans, said Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit that pushed for the 2013 law. Skeptics said young children are best taught at home, and they questioned whether their state could afford pre-K. But it was a much easier sell at the community level, where people know young children who benefit from early learning. “You see ‘em at Wal-Mart, you see ‘em at church. You know these kids.”

Utah adopted a pay-for-success contract overhaul to encourage private investors and philanthropic groups to launch early learning programs. If their programs lead a reduction in the number of students who require an Individualized Education Program, the state saves money — and the private party shares in the state’s savings.

The bill passed, but it was a “bloodletting,” Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said. “It had skepticism throughout.”

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Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett

The 2015 Idaho Legislature passed a similar pay-for-success contracts law — with little opposition — and a Boise-based nonprofit, the Lee Pesky Learning Center, is looking to apply the concept to early reading programs.

However, pre-K bills have fared worse. The House Education Committee has printed pilot bills the past two sessions, but did not send either bill to the floor for a vote. Before that, the last time the Legislature took a serious look at pre-K was 2007 — and at the time, Thayn was a leading critic of the voluntary bill.

Nampa Republican Rep. Christy Perry, a co-sponsor of this year’s pilot bill, wouldn’t go so far as to predict passage in 2016. She said it could take five years to pass a pre-K bill. The research supports pre-K, she said, but in a citizens’ Legislature with heavy turnover, it can take years to put together the votes to pass a bill.

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Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa

Mississippi’s model may be a good framework for Idaho, said Rod Gramer, CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of CEOs that has supported pre-K for years. But the state needs to find a framework it can rally behind — to allow parents to decide whether they want to send their children to pre-K.

When Idaho refuses to fund pre-K, said Gramer, “The state is already making the decision for parents.”

 

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