Pre-K advocates hope to refocus Idaho’s debate

A Michigan-based foundation with a famous name has committed $450,000 to try to change Idaho’s debate over pre-K.

But funders aren’t banking on too much, too soon.

“When you’re starting from a position of scarcity, small wins are a big deal,” Jon-Paul Bianchi of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation said in a recent interview.

Based in Battle Creek, Mich., the Kellogg Foundation was founded by breakfast cereal magnate Will Keith Kellogg. Early education is a priority for the foundation — which explains its interest in Idaho, one of only a handful of states without state-funded pre-K.

The Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children will use the three-year grant to try to build support for pre-K. For years, early education has been a non-starter of an issue at the Statehouse; even voluntary and pilot pre-K proposals have gone nowhere.

Beth Oppenheimer
Beth Oppenheimer

Early learning advocates have long led the campaign for pre-K in Idaho, with support from the education and nonprofit communities. But Idaho AEYC executive director Beth Oppenheimer wants to use the three-year campaign to bring more people into the conversation — especially parents and pre-K providers.

The focal point of a pre-K debate could be every bit as important.

Many parents are forced to face an unyielding economic reality. They have to place their children in a preschool or day-care center. Given that, a strong pre-K system is best for young children, and a “work force support” for parents, Bianchi said. When pre-K is seen as business-friendly, the idea finds more traction, even in conservative state capitols.

“More and more red states are starting to get there,” Bianchi said.

Nonetheless, Bianchi is well aware of the political obstacles, especially in conservative states such as Idaho.

Some political leaders are viscerally opposed to pre-K, because they believe home provides the best learning environment for young children. Bianchi says his foundation respects this viewpoint — but for many parents, it simply isn’t feasible to stay home full-time. “The numbers do not match up,” he said.

Meanwhile, some political leaders view publicly funded pre-K as an overreach — an expansion beyond the state’s normal governing role. Here again, Bianchi is sympathetic. He says his foundation believes in a mixed, choice-based approach — building on a blend of public and private preschools that operates in other states.

But changing the dialogue will take time. So Bianchi says the Kellogg Foundation has modest short-term goals: additional pre-K options in pockets of the state, and increased public momentum behind early education. And even though the foundation awarded its $450,000 in late August, Bianchi said it’s likely the grant will be renewed beyond the current three-year cycle.