Some see 2014 as time for public pre-K in Idaho

BOISE, Idaho — Advocates for government-supported preschool programs hope to tackle the issue amid increased interest in changing Idaho’s public education system.

One Democratic lawmaker said he will be pushing a $1.4 million pilot program when the 2014 Legislature starts in January.

And Beth Oppenheimer, director of the group Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, believes more people are recognizing that taxpayer-financed preschool education programs are sorely missing from the state’s education offerings, the Idaho Statesman reported Monday.

She is among those who say that well-intentioned recommendations delivered recently by a statewide education task force could be hamstrung if they don’t include a program that also prepares children under 5 for elementary school.

“We have to stop picking and choosing and look at this system as a whole,” Oppenheimer said.

There are currently privately financed preschool programs across the state, but advocates for state-backed programs say many are too expensive for some parents.

As an alternative, State Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, plans to introduce a bill in January asking the state to support a pilot preschool program costing a total of $1.4 million for three years in five Idaho school districts to determine how effective early childhood education could be.

The private sector would put up about half the money, with the state Legislature chipping in the rest. Pilot programs would have classes of 15 to 20 students for a total of 114 Idaho students.

Parents should be a part of the program, Kloc said.

Idaho legislators, in particular majority Republicans, have long been leery of taxpayer-backed preschool programs, in part because they believe youngsters thrive best at home, with their parents.

“Parents who work with kids have better results,” Kloc, who worked as a business education teacher in New York City, said of his proposal.

Some worry that Kloc’s plan for a pilot program, however well intentioned, could leave some areas of the state feeling neglected because schools haven’t been chosen to participate. They include state Sen. John Goedde, chairman of the Idaho Senate Education Committee.

“How can you offer (this) to one set of children and not the other and still say you have a free and equal system?” Goedde asked.

GOP superintendent of public instruction Tom Luna says he’s rethinking his views on the value of so-called pre-kindergarten, since not everyone comes from a background where education is a priority.

However, rather than adopting government-backed solutions, he favors a model that relies on communities and businesses. In a perfect world, he acknowledges, children would get a good foundation before they arrive in public-school kindergarten.

However, “it is obvious to me there are some homes where that is just not going to happen,” Luna said. “We have to find a solution.”

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