It’s time for an Idaho pre-K pilot

Fall signals the beginning of a new school year — a time full of promise and opportunities. As I consider the next legislative session I feel that same sense of optimism.

As a former teacher, I welcomed the opportunity to serve on the House Education Committee during the last session. When the session ended, I continued to explore some of the education options presented to the committee. By summer I had narrowed my focus and was meeting with stakeholders about the idea of introducing legislation in the next session. The result: a bill to develop a preschool pilot program in Idaho.

Preschool programs are not a new idea, but they are gaining new supporters in some unlikely places. Oklahoma, hardly a proponent of big government initiatives, has implemented one of the most extensive preschool programs in the nation. The program is offered in 99 percent of the state’s public school districts. If enrollment is any measure of public support, participation by 74 percent of 4-year-olds leaves little doubt where the majority of Oklahomans stand on preschool education.

The reason for that support is simple: It pays big dividends. National studies show that for every $1 invested in quality preschool programs, there is a return of from $3.50 to $17 in economic value. That’s impressive by any calculation.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Capitalists for Preschool,” John E. Pepper Jr. and James M. Zimmerman presented their business case for quality preschool. Pepper, a former chairman and chief executive of Procter & Gamble, and Zimmerman, a former chairman and chief executive of Macy’s, wrote, “Our greatest deficit in this country — the one that most threatens our future as a nation — is our education deficit, not our fiscal one.” They went on, “Universally available prekindergarten is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.” Their message was crystal-clear: “If there ever was a nonpartisan issue, this is it.”

More important than the dollars and cents are the social benefits. Preschool programs level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Studies indicate that those who participate in quality preschool programs not only end up earning up to $2,000 more per month than their peers who didn’t, but they also are more likely to stay within the law, graduate from high school, own homes, and have longer marriages. These are the very things that strengthen the social fabric of our communities.

The pilot I am proposing would run for three years — enough time to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Funding would come from a public/private partnership, possibly involving foundations and business organizations committed to Idaho’s success. While all school districts and charter schools in the state would be eligible for consideration, the state Education Department would conduct an approval process to select the schools for the actual pilot.

Preschool bills have been introduced in the Idaho Legislature in the past. Every one of them has failed. Learning something new is never easy. However, with the governor’s task force on education’s recommendations being implemented and sufficient public and legislative support, I believe this time we can make the grade. A better education for our children will mean a brighter future for all Idahoans.

For additional information regarding references cited here, visit my website: hykloc.org