Idaho Opposition To Public Preschool Is About Money And Ideology

Jun 6, 2013

Idaho Schools Superintendent Tom Luna
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Idaho is one of just 10 states that don’t have a state-supported preschool program. As we’ve examined the reasons for that this week, we’ve heard from some pre-k opponents. Here we go deeper into their arguments.

Tom Luna  

Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is a Republican in his second term. He was one of the first people I spoke with after I started research about pre-kindergarten education. That was December of 2011. Luna did not count himself as an outright opponent of a state pre-k program but he’s certainly a skeptic.  

“I have to wonder, as a conservative, where does it end?” Luna says. “Is it really a cradle-to-grave type of a system that we’re going to end up with? That concerns me, because I do not support government at that level.”

Luna also cites the most common argument pre-k skeptics and opponents make: money.

“If we don’t have enough money for the current system we have, you know, that’s the argument we hear year after year after year, is that we’re not spending enough on a K-12 system,” says Luna. “How are we ever going to have enough to add another layer of education?”

Bob Nonini

The north Idaho Republican spent years as chairman of the House Education Committee where several pre-k bills went to die. Nonini has now moved to the Senate and a place on its Education Committee. Nonini denies having any strong ideological objections to the idea of state supported preschool. He says Idaho simply doesn’t have enough money even to consider adding it.

“You always have to address the political reality that some people believe that’s just tax payer funded baby-sitting,” Nonini says of pre-k. “I’m not going to take a position one way or the other, but until we can address the issue of funding a full day of kindergarten then I think it’s premature to discuss the pre-k issue.”

Most Idaho school districts offer only half day kindergarten. Nonini says Idaho is years away from a discussion on pre-k. He says first the state’s economy would need to be going strong again. Then, he would be willing to talk about funding all-day kindergarten.

Steven Thayn

This Republican from Emmett was another longtime member of the House Education Committee who has recently moved to the Senate and its Education Committee. Thayn authored a 2007 House resolution saying it was parents’ responsibility to educate young children. He also has a reputation of being anti-kindergarten. He says that’s unfair, he just thinks some children need kindergarten and some don’t. Not so for preschool. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.  

Q: If money were not a concern, should Idaho provide education for 3 and 4-year-olds?

A: I suppose you mean that the state has a program with a full time teacher like kindergarten. And the answer to that would be no. Early on, the most important factor in a student’s education is the support they get from their parents. We should be training parents, not training 3 and 4-year-olds. The state-run programs that have been set up through taxpayer dollars, actually relieve parents of that responsibility of working with their children.

Q: What about the parents who don’t have the time or resources or even the ability to teach their kids?

A: The ability factor is really what I’m talking about. Someone getting involved in helping parents understand how young children are supposed to act, you’d reap more benefits from that than taking the children out of the home. We don’t need to be rewarding parents who are not working with their kids by sending their kids to a program. We need to be encouraging parents to work with their kids. As we had the pre-kindergarten debates a few years ago what was striking was the number of testifiers who said parents aren’t capable, parents are on drugs, parents are too busy. Now, there may be some truth to that, but rather than creating another program we need to try to remove obstacles to parents so they can get involved, because those parents are capable.

Q: The Emmett School District (Thayn’s home town) is one of those that does have some pre-kindergarten in the school for the highest need children…

A: I think that’s appropriate. There are some children with autism and different things that are beyond the scope of most parents. And to get some early intervention, I think is an appropriate use of tax payer money.

Bryan Fischer

The former head of the Idaho Values Alliance was well known in Idaho for championing conservative causes. He has since gone on to a national organization and gotten national attention for pressuring Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to fire an openly gay staffer. His opposition to pre-k came to my attention when researching an attempt made in 2007 to shut down the Boise School District’s preschool program. A public records request revealed a letter Fischer wrote to Sen. Bob Nonini.  It listed reasons Fischer believed Boise schools were breaking the law by teaching kids younger than 5, and asks Nonini to get the state attorney general involved. Fischer says he doesn’t remember if his intention was to force the Boise preschools to close, but he thinks the nation should phase out all public pre-k. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.  

Q: Why did you decide to write a letter to then Rep. Nonini asking him to look into it?

A: The concern I had is it’s just another program that pulls children away from the home and away from the parents. We know that the optimal nurturing environment is in a home where they can receive the attention, direction, care, and training of a parent, especially with a mother who are uniquely equipped for those kinds of responsibilities.

Q: What is the problem, exactly, with kids going to a preschool environment?

A: There are two problems associated with that. One, the nurture and direction and character guidance that child is receiving is coming from a stranger. Parents are the ones who are uniquely equipped and designed for that role. Second, if you put kids in a preschool environment, which is basically a glorified daycare environment, most of their interaction is going to be with human beings who have linguistic skills that are as limited as their own. If you have a 3 or 4-year-old child in the home virtually all of its conversation is going to be with an adult. And that contributes to their cognitive development.

A: What about for English language learners or kids whose parents work two jobs and can’t afford to have someone stay home?

Q: We’re not saying that anybody has to stay home, but I believe if we care about young children and we want them in the optimal nurturing environment, then we would want to keep the tax burden as low as possible on families so they can make that choice if they choose.

Find more stories in our series on preschool in Idaho at these links:

Map: Idaho Is One Of 10 States Without Public Preschool

State Of Idaho Lags On Preschool, Districts Lead

Idaho School Districts Take On Public Preschool Without State Funding

Why Caldwell Might Represent The Future Of Public Preschool In Idaho

Idaho Would Get $20 Million Under President Obama's Plan To Expand Preschool

Why One Idaho Republican Became An Unlikely Champion For Public Preschool

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