Analysis: Are legislators serious about helping kids learn to read, or not?


There’s a lot to take away from the House’s narrow but resounding vote to derail a $6 million early education grant.

But does it mean legislators aren’t serious about helping young kids learn to read?

We’ll know more soon.

Legislators could still take a second look at the early education grant, and actually allow the State Board of Education to use the feds’ money. And then there’s Gov. Brad Little’s $20 million summer reading program proposal, which still has to get through the House and Senate.

“I do see them as different issues,” said Greg Wilson, Little’s education policy adviser. Early education is all about kindergarten readiness, he said, while summer reading is about playing post-pandemic catchup.

But both proposals address early literacy: Little’s guiding education goal, and possibly his top legislative priority. So let’s break down both issues, and the prospects.

The early education grant

The March 2 House debate pretty much hit every square on the conservative hardliner Bingo card. Concerns about indoctrinating young kids with a curriculum steeped in social justice. Fears about the linkage between the National Association for the Education of Young Children and its Idaho affiliate, which would work with the State Board on the grant project. And Rep. Charlie Shepherd’s floor debate, in which the first-year lawmaker complained that early education could make it  “easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home.” (Shepherd, R-Pollock, later apologized, but his quote went national and sparked a protest on the Statehouse steps a day later.)

Yes, the debate was, well, a lot.

But there’s a fundamental reason why Little has pursued federal early education grant dollars, something Butch Otter rejected during his 12 years as governor. There’s a reason why Little worked with then-President Trump and Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, not exactly a trio of social justice warriors, to secure $6 million of Uncle Sam’s money.

It’s reading. Namely the fact that fewer than half of Idaho’s kindergartners arrive at school without the basic skills needed to learn to read at grade level. Last fall, this number was 43.5 percent, but these kindergarten scores were stubbornly low even before the pandemic.

And as the Idaho AEYC noted in a federally funded early education needs assessment — a precursor to the $6 million grant rollout now in limbo — the state simply hasn’t done enough research on the role of early education.

“Idaho does not have systems in place to understand which types of (early education) settings are most effective in increasing school readiness and early literacy,” the Idaho AEYC and the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy said in the needs assessment.

The three-year, $6 million grant would enable the state to work with schools and business and community partners on local early education programs. Since Idaho does not fund pre-kindergarten, these partnerships could be the state’s next best chance to learn more about what works best in early education.

Last week’s bill would have simply authorized the State Board and the Idaho AEYC to build those partnerships by spending the federal grant — an idea that left the House evenly divided. It failed on a 34-36 vote, after Garden City Democrat John McCrostie switched his vote to “no,” in a last-ditch procedural attempt to save the bill.

That’s probably not the last word on the grant, though.

“I’m hoping that can still be salvaged,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise.

Given last week’s close vote, House Speaker Scott Bedke believes supporters will bring back another bill. And Wilson sees ways to win over some lawmakers by tweaking the wording — making it clear that all curriculum decisions are made locally, and making it clear that the state wouldn’t end up paying for programs launched during the three-year grant period.

Will it work? In an interview Wednesday, Wilson hedged his bets.

“We’re going to work very, very hard,” he said.

The summer reading program

Little used his State of the State address to tout this $20 million plan. That was Jan. 11, two months ago. Since then, the idea hasn’t gone anywhere — and save for some pushback during a Feb. 1 House Education Committee meeting, the debate has pretty much gone silent.

Watch for that to change Friday, when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee wraps up budget-writing for the year and takes up K-12 spending.

Wilson downplayed the lack of movement on the summer reading program so far, and expressed confidence about its prospects. He noted that lawmakers have long recognized Little’s commitment to early reading, supporting his 2019 request to double the literacy budget to $26 million.

But are things any different in 2021, considering the House vote on the early education grant?

“I don’t think that’s the case at all,” Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said Monday, during a virtual question-and-answer session hosted by the Idaho Press Club. “I think there’s great support for the literacy program.”

Bedke, R-Oakley, spends no small part of his time gauging the sentiments of the House’s 58-member GOP caucus. And during the Idaho Press Club Q&A, he predicted there might be some “foot-dragging” on the summer reading program.

“Some people want to find fault with the governor on every turn,” Bedke said. “And I think that’s completely unproductive.”

In effect, Little is asking the Legislature to protect its investment in literacy. Before the pandemic, reading scores were showing some improvement, Wilson said. Then COVID wiped out a quarter of the 2019-20 school year and wiped out any momentum.

Bedke echoes that sentiment, saying the state can ill-afford to lose ground this year.

And while Little is proposing his summer reading program, other Republicans in the Legislature are working independently on their own plans to beef up instruction in the early grades. Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn and House Education Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby are teaming up on a summer “jumpstart” program for incoming kindergartners. Sen. Carl Crabtree and Rep. Judy Boyle are co-sponsoring an all-day kindergarten bill, which will get a hearing in House Education Monday.

In theory, that all bodes well for the summer reading proposal. But we’ll find out what legislators are really thinking, and we’ll find out soon.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.



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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