Early Ed, Late Money

Advocates hope to restore funding


The troops are headed to town, to strategize over education funding. When Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter suddenly cut $1 million in funding to early childhood education efforts, it sent a ripple through the education community that has now reached St. Louis, Mo.

This week, Sue Stepleton, the CEO of the national nonprofit Parents as Teachers, plans to visit with local early childhood education workers and advocates to find a way to get the program back on track.

Parents as Teachers had been assisting families of more than 2,600 children in Idaho with personal visits, developmental screenings, referral services and other parent education services. Their goal, Stepleton said, is to prepare Idaho children for school. The idea is to give kids a boost before they're suddenly faced with a structured learning environment when they reach public-schooling age.

But even as Stepleton travels to Boise this week, Otter's office remains steadfast in their opinion that although they don't dispute the value of early childhood education, they don't like the way the state had been funding the program, using federal funds intended for a variety of family-assistance programs like Head Start.

"The governor had serious concerns about the appropriate use of that money," said Jon Hanian, Otter's spokesman.

A state audit had suggested this funding formula was risky, stating that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF grant, could be jeopardized by the diversion.

Stepleton doesn't buy that argument.

"That similar funding stream is used in other states successfully," she said. "Any of those federal laws/guidelines tend to be open to interpretation." Even if the grant doesn't work, she added, $1 million out of a multimillion dollar state budget shouldn't be out of the question.

"The state can find that if the state has the will to find it," Stepleton said.

The value of the program, she said, is well worth the initial investment. Studies have shown, Stepleton said, that kids who go through the Parents as Teachers program are less likely to wind up in a more expensive special education program.

If she were to land an audience with Otter, Stepleton said that's the message she would push.

"It's not only folks in his political camp who hear those arguments most readily," Stepleton said.

Hanian said that Otter and his advisers were concerned about what Hanian called "mission creep," in which money that is ostensibly going to fund Parents as Teachers is bleeding over into the formation of a de facto pre-kindergarten system in Idaho, something that Idaho lawmakers have consistently balked at.

"Clearly, [Otter] has concerns about funding pre-kindergarten," Hanian said.

If that's the case, Stepleton said, her allies may have to consider private funds of some kind to help pay for what she says is an essential component of education.