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Pre-K Preview

Boise Democratic Rep. Hy Kloc wants to know if Idaho is ready for preschool.

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Idaho students have lagged behind their counterparts in other states--and it might be because Idaho is failing at preschool. According to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 18,000 low-income children ages 3 and 4 don't attend preschool, representing 69 percent of kids in that age group. The national average is 63 percent, putting Idaho near the bottom of the pack nationally when it comes to pre-kindergarten education.

Hy Kloc thinks he has a solution to those problems. The Democratic state House member from District 16, in Boise, is fronting legislation that would create a pre-K pilot program that would put the merits of early childhood education on an evidentiary basis in Idaho, and possibly lay the foundation for a future statewide preschool program, but he and his bill face legislative and practical obstacles.

"It's something people want," Kloc said. "I think we really need to develop this kind of program for Idaho."

Kloc's legislation would call for spending a total of $1.4 million--55 percent of which would come from non-tax sources like the private sector and nonprofit foundations--to send 120 students in five Idaho school districts through preschool with an eye to tracking their educational progress through the third grade, the specifics of which would be determined by the State Board of Education.

"The way I envision it, I'd like to see what the results are for preschool first, and then the third grade," Kloc said.

During the upcoming legislative session, his pilot program will have to first pass the House Education Committee, as well as a votes in both the House and Senate. Along the way, he'll have to convince House members on the other side of the aisle that preschool is worth the money and effort, but Kloc modeled his program on successful pre-K programs in other states--some of them with political leanings as conservative as Idaho's.

He consulted studies that affirm those programs' effectiveness at preparing students for future educational success. He also uncovered evidence that such programs correlate to long-term reductions in high-school dropout rates and future criminal behavior, among other benefits. According to The Abecedarian Project, students who attended pre-K programs were less likely to repeat grades or require special education.

Some state legislatures eager to reduce costs have responded to the long-term economic benefits of making early childhood education available. The HighScope Perry Preschool Study linked preschool attendance to increased earnings (up to $2,000 more per month), and, according to an estimate by Rob Grunewald and Arthur Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, states that put money toward pre-K education might expect a 12 percent return on their investments in the form of increased tax revenues.

Several states with Republican-majority legislatures have taken steps to expand access to pre-K. Oklahoma has a pre-K program that serves 74 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled in either public or private preschool. In Florida, the percentage of 4-year-olds attending preschool is 76 percent--the highest of any state in the nation. Georgia and Michigan also have similar programs.

The number of states that have some kind of state-sponsored early childhood education has emboldened Kloc.

"The thing that's amazing [to] me is the interest preschool is generating nationwide. It tells me that this is a course that we can take that will fulfill the objectives we're trying to reach," he said.

Critics of pre-K say that the conclusions of studies supporting pre-kindergarten education aren't as straightforward as advocates believe. Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth College and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University observed that while free access to preschool increased enrollment among the children of non-college-educated parents, the children of college degree-holding parents tended to shift their children from free programs to private preschools, casting a shadow over claims that such education benefits all children in the same ways.

Others doubt the efficacy of such programs entirely, saying that childhood learning before kindergarten is not retained because the children are too young, and that it's the role of families to prepare young students for their first days of school.

Such critiques, Kloc said, are the most serious barriers between his pilot program and passage in the Legislature.

"I guess the biggest obstacle is to convince people that preschool education ... [goes] anywhere," he said.

Eagle Republican Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he's skeptical of claims that preschool programs offer the long-term benefits espoused by advocates.

"As I've looked at pre-K around the nation, I've certainly seen mixed results. Pre-K, the first year or two, students seem to indicate results. However, a lot of surveys indicate that by years three to four, the results are negligible," he said.

DeMordaunt said he hadn't spoken with Kloc about his pilot program, and couldn't speak to what kind of support or opposition it might face in committee, but added he's eager to have a conversation on the issue.

"I'm anxious to see the legislation but I haven't had the time to meet," DeMoraunt said.

Kloc said he has spoken with Republicans to secure support of his bill, but declined to name his contacts. In order for his bill to pass the committee, he will need at least some support from the other side of the aisle in the Republican-controlled House.

But, Kloc added, he has also been seeking support from outside groups, including the State Board of Education, education lobbying interests and other foundations, including Idaho Business for Education.

Rod Gramer of IBE said a preschool education program in Idaho would be the most significant advancement in Idaho public ed since then-Gov. Cecil Andrus helped institute public kindergarten in 1975, but also that IBE will focus its lobbying efforts this coming legislative session on the Common Core standards and the Governor's Task Force for Improving Education, which would strengthen Idaho's K-12 programs.

The problem, Gramer said, is one of cultural will.

"So far, the political will hasn't been there to create preschool. We need to try to create this situation where we can create political and cultural will," he said.

For the IBE, the mission of creating political and cultural will is instilling in the Legislature a sense of the long-term benefits Idaho stands to gain by investing in education, but this legislative session, Gramer and IBE will dedicate their lobbying efforts to other issues.

"I'm not sure if it's going to happen for Hy's bill. Our focus has to be on the Governor's Task Force recommendations," Gramer said.