National study: Idaho pre-K programs are lacking, and losing ground

A new national report gives Idaho’s school system some lackluster grades — especially for access to pre-kindergarten.

In 2015, only 31 percent of Idaho’s 3- and 4-year olds had access to pre-K, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count data book released Tuesday. By contrast, 47 percent of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds had access to pre-K.

Not only is Idaho lagging behind the rest of the nation, but the gap is widening. Between 2009 and 2011, Idaho’s pre-K access rate was 36 percent.

“While many other states are making prudent investments in early learning, in Idaho we’re missing an opportunity to ensure our kids have a strong foundation for future success,” said Lauren Noceochea, director of Idaho Voices for Children, which is affiliated with Idaho Kids Count. “Investments in early learning save taxpayer dollars down the road through reductions in crime and increased productivity.”

The Kids Count data report is just the latest passage in the ongoing story of pre-K in Idaho. The emotional issue that has pit pre-K supporters against legislators who believe young children are best taught at home, and balk at funding an expansion in the public education system.

Idaho is one of only a handful of states that does not fund pre-K programs. (Two recent studies define state-funded pre-K differently, so they peg the number of states without pre-K at six and seven.) A broad-based group of child advocates, education and business leaders have pushed the issue, but voluntary or pilot pre-K proposals have made little headway at the Idaho Statehouse.

In 2017, pre-K advocates didn’t even get a hearing on a bill. They instead made informal presentations to the House and Senate education committees.

Because of the paucity of pre-K offerings, Idaho ranks No. 43 on Kids Count’s education rankings. Here’s how Idaho measures up on the report’s other education yardsticks for 2015:

  • Fourth-grade students who are not proficient in reading: Idaho, 64 percent; nation, 65 percent.
  • Eighth-grade students who are not proficient in math: Idaho, 66 percent; nation, 68 percent.
  • High school students who do not graduate on time: Idaho, 21 percent; nation, 17 percent.

On Tuesday, the Casey Foundation hailed the nation’s record graduation numbers, but said the nation’s other education metrics were a mixed bag. Reading proficiency improved, but math proficiency decreased slightly. Access to pre-K also dropped slightly, but not as sharply as Idaho’s decrease.

The annual data book also rates the states on three other metrics related to child welfare. Here, Idaho fared much better, contributing to the state’s overall No. 20 ranking.

On family and community metrics, such as the percentage of children living with a single parent, Idaho ranked No. 11. On economic well-being issues, such as poverty rates, Idaho ranked No. 14. Idaho ranked No. 24 on child health issues.

The Casey Foundation is a Baltimore-based organization that focus on child welfare issues.