Early learning in Idaho: a short guide

EdNews Assistant Editor Devin Bodkin writes a regular Monday column to shine a light on an education issue from the week. Contact him with ideas at [email protected] 

Early learning in Idaho was back in the news last week, for better and for worse.

The latest fall reading scores from this year’s first-graders — last year’s kindergarteners — were better than 2020’s, despite months of hybrid and remote learning, masks and hundreds of kindergarten no-shows last school year.

But Idaho educators are still wrapping their heads around the pandemic’s 2020-21 impacts on youngsters. And early learning in Idaho remains a sore spot for some.

Idaho’s kids are “getting hit harder” than kids in some other states, said Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer, who for years has pushed to no avail for state-funded preschool and full-day kindergarten options for Idaho’s kids.

To Oppenheimer and others, the pandemic’s impacts only add fuel to what they view as an already inadequate early learning system.

But how does Idaho stack up nationally in terms of state offerings? And what would it take to bring these services to kids?

Let’s start with what Idaho does — and doesn’t — do when it comes to kindergarten.

Kindergarten remains optional here, a fact that may have influenced last year’s 813-student enrollment drop among the statewide group amid a 2020-21 COVID-19 flare up. Idaho parents can homeschool their kindergarteners, skip the school year entirely or hold their kids back a year.

When — and if — kindergarteners do enroll, their zip code largely determines what they get access to. The Legislature carves up funds for half-day options in public schools. If districts want full-day programs, they have to cover them through local supplemental funds, fees or both.

Most do provide the option, EdNews reported earlier this year. But early learning advocates like Oppenheimer say the most equitable solution is state-funded, full-day options for all.

A mixed bag of states already do that. Idaho is one of just eight states that doesn’t require kindergarten, according to Education Commission of the States. At least 17, plus the District of Columbia, require it full-day.

There’s plenty of support from top state leaders, including Gov. Brad Little. But funding for full-day pre-K means support from Idaho’s conservative Legislature, which has resisted it for years.

A flurry of renewed interest in the topic ahead of the 2022 legislative session doesn’t mean a change happens easily, or quickly, EdNews senior reporter Kevin Richert writes.

Then there’s the issue of state-funded preschool, which Idaho devotes no money to. Forty-four states, plus the District of Columbia, fund pre-K programs, ECS says. Idaho isn’t one of them, but that doesn’t mean families in some communities lack free access as a result of work from advocates like Oppenheimer’s organization.

Since 2019, 15 communities, from Pocatello to Coeur d’Alene, are participating in IAEYC’s “early learning collaborative,” which entices school districts, local organizations, business leaders, childcare providers, community leaders and stakeholders to create and deliver free school readiness programs.

It’s not state-funded pre-K, Oppenheimer acknowledges, but it’s a start.

Like full-day kindergarten, state funds for pre-K would require change from the Legislature.

If recent years are any indicator, it could be a while before that happens.

  • In 2019, the State Department of Education missed out on a portion of more than $241 million in federal grants designed to help with preschool program planning. Idaho didn’t apply, because the Legislature hasn’t allowed the SDE to spend money on pre-K programs.
  • Following a lengthy and heated floor debate, the Idaho House of Representatives voted 36-34 last legislative session against what would have allowed $6 million in federal pre-K funds to flow to Idaho.
Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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