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Discounting the Brainpower of Youth: Early childhood education debate returns to Legislature

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In 1975, the Idaho Legislature established public kindergarten. Actively campaigning against the idea was one state Rep. C. L. "Butch" Otter. He worked both the House and Senate education committees, arguing that state-funded kindergarten would cut into established private kindergarten business and that there was no proven need for kids to go to school at a younger age.

The Legislature at the time was pretty far behind the curve.

Three or four years prior, Gov. Cecil Andrus had allowed school districts to tap into Emergency Employment Act funds, federal funds that President Richard Nixon provided to the states to boost recession-time employment, according to Marty Peterson, a former aid to Andrus.

Nearly all the districts took advantage of the money to hire kindergarten teachers, said Peterson, who now works for the University of Idaho.

"Richard Nixon brought public kindergarten to the state of Idaho," Peterson said after a recent forum on early childhood education at the Boise City Club.

By the time the Legislature got around to approving it, many Idaho parents were already getting used to it.

Fast forward 30 years.

Using federal funds—Bush administration funds—and other private and public grants, most school districts now offer early learning programs for special-needs students. These are required, but many districts also offer pre-kindergarten for the peers of special-needs children—something they are supposed to do under federal educational guidelines, but may be technically not allowed to do under state law.

Additionally, some Idaho school districts offer preschool to any kid who wants to go.

These programs, for children who are barred by the state from going to school because they are younger than 5, offer another choice to parents who want their kids to have a little extra time in a classroom-like setting.

Nobody knows exactly how many of these public pre-K programs are out there in Idaho or exactly how they are being funded, but they serve a purpose.

Since implementing a preschool and full-day kindergarten program four years ago, the Wilder School District has noted a dramatic increase in kindergarten reading scores, nearing 90 percent at grade level, and there are many examples like this across the state.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is also noticing these high reading scores statewide, but he does not give the preschool experience the same credence that kindergarten teachers do.

"I think it's important that students show up for kindergarten ready to learn," said Luna. "I think the best place to do that is in the home."

Luna and now-Gov. Otter say they prefer to shore up the K-12 budget before asking the state to pony up millions for public pre-K.

Otter recently told one early childhood education advocate that 30 years ago, the "experts" told him kindergarten was going to help raise kids out of poverty and solve various social ills, and now the same arguments are being made for pre-K.

But arguing about K vs. pre-K misses the point. The point is that the supple little brains of toddlers and preschoolers need to be nurtured, and Idaho, researchers argue, does not do a good job making sure that happens.

A substantial body of research from across the globe shows that early childhood education—getting children started on the right foot—is essential to academic success later in life.

"The [United Nations] is all over this," said Eldon Wallace, a retired Missouri education official who advises Sen. Mike Burkett on education issues. "This is not a little pissant Idaho issue. This is a global issue."

Wallace recently handed BW a stack of reports from the United Nations, the World Bank, the PEW Charitable Trusts and an 11-page annotated Web bibliography on pre-K benefits to prove his point.

Burkett, a Boise Democrat, aims to have public preschool in place across the state by 2012. He arranged a hearing this week in the Senate Education Committee on an innovative bill that he calls the missionary model: "Take the pre-K educator to the place where the kids are," he said.

That means that local communities would be able to apply for state funds to place pre-K teachers anywhere it makes sense to the community: churches, community centers, day cares, schools or maybe even homes.

Burkett and others, including Sen. Gary Schroeder, a Moscow Republican, have tried for years to get the ball rolling on early childhood education. Since at least 2000, there have been interim committees and governor's task forces and blue-ribbon panels looking at preschool options in Idaho.

Ironically, the work of a fringe interim committee last summer may actually speed the formation of a new voting block that supports early childhood education.

Speaker of House Lawerence Denney, who sanctioned the group's creation, and most members of the House Family Task Force have backed away from the fundamentalist position taken by its leader, Rep. Steven Thayn, an Emmett Republican, who eschews public preschool, ostensibly as a socialist plot.

It's not just the House, however. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, a Republican and former teacher from Caldwell, has held up a bill in her Health and Welfare Committee that would rate childcare venues in the state with an eye to improving their brain development muster.

"I think through this we could prepare children for kindergarten," said Sen. Stan Bastian, the rating bill's sponsor.

With Republicans like Bastian, a retired Eagle school administrator, and Idaho Falls Rep. Janice McGeachin now advocating for early childhood education, Burkett and others are sensing an opportunity.

"I think we may be in a position as we assess where we're at, there's a lot of common ground here," said Sen. Tom Gannon, a Buhl Republican. He's been a forceful advocate for preschool ever since a group of teachers ganged up on him at the back of an airplane a few years ago.

Gannon said that these teachers convinced him that the large numbers of kids that were not really ready for school were hindering progress of the entire class.

If a few lawmakers want to continue to indoctrinate their children above and beyond the ABCs and the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, they should be allowed to do that. But a state investment in voluntary preschools would give a boost to all the helpful mothers-in-law or well-lit church basements or, someday, certified nursery school programs.

And ultimately help the Microns to do their jobs too.

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