Forty U.S. states offer pre-kindergarten programs. Idaho is not one of them. Here, about one third of 3 and 4-year-olds attend a public or private preschool. But none attend one that’s funded or sanctioned by the state. However, that doesn't stop some school districts from offering pre-k programs of their own.
Take Idaho City’s Basin School District. On a hot spring day one year ago, the class of 2012 practices for graduation in the gym while outside about 20 4- year-olds play under towering pine trees. This is the district’s current pre-K class, those seniors were the first.
Elementary principal Jamie Pilkerton watches the preschoolers build sand castles and run in and out of a plastic house. With her is special education director Beth Woodruff. Pilkerton came to Idaho City in 1999 as a reading specialist. The same year Woodruff had started the preschool for all district children. When she arrived, Pilkerton gave elementary students the state’s reading test. She was appalled at the results.
“All but three of our 2nd graders were below grade level,” she says. Pilkerton went to the principal’s office and started listing things the school needed to change. It included about everything. Woodruff says Pilkerton swore she’d never let her kids go to school in Idaho City.
“I might have said that,” Pilkerton says. “Privately.”
The two constantly interrupt each other and finishing the other’s sentences. Woodruff jumps in.
“I remember it because my kids were going to school here. And I just thought, Ahh!”
Laughing, Pilkerton says, “this was fourteen years ago. And it was a very different environment at the elementary than what we have now.”
She says things changed noticeably in just a few years. Last year, 95 percent of Idaho City’s students scored at the proficient or advanced levels in reading.
There were a lot of changes made around the same time but Pilkerton, Woodruff and many others in Idaho City say the pre-K program was a big part of the school’s turn around.
What Idaho City does is rare but not unheard of. According to a 2008 Boise State study, about two thirds of Idaho school districts offered some pre-k. Most of that was just for children with special needs. About a third had programs for children with and without special needs. But even with all those programs and others like federal Head Start, the study says only about 5 percent of Idaho preschool age children have access to high quality public pre-k.
There are mountains of research on early childhood education. Some suggests the academic benefits disappear after just a few years. But Keith Allred, the head of early childhood and special education at Boise State, says the preponderance of research goes the other way.
“There’s evidence that when young children have participated in very high quality programs that they will benefit for decades to come,” Allred says.
Those benefits include better chances at a successful career and better health. But they aren’t the same for every child.
“The research is pretty clear that the poorer the child and the more risk factors that the family is facing, those are the children that benefit most from formalized early childhood programs,” he says.
The organization Idaho Kids Count says about one third of the state’s three and four year olds in families earning less than $50,000 a year are enrolled in public or private preschool. But in families making more than $50,000 a year, half of kids go to preschool. And in Idaho families who make more than $100,000 a year, it goes up to two thirds.
“When it comes to pre-k education there is a certain sense in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Allred says.
Educators Jamie Pilkerton and Beth Woodruff say that’s why pre-k is so important in Idaho City. Many of their students are poor or have difficult home lives. But the school has struggled to keep the program open. With no state help, funding it is a constant challenge. Early on, administrators had hoped to get state money.
In 2002, Pilkerton and Woodruff went to Boise to tell legislators about the success they were seeing with preschool and broach the subject of state funding. Woodruff says most lawmakers were polite but dismissive. Others were openly hostile and accused them of things like brainwashing and separating kids from their families.
“One of them said next thing you know we’re going to be at the hospital taking them from the parents as they leave,” Woodruff recalls. “That was after we talked and it had absolutely no reflection on what we just said.”
The visit foreshadowed (some say began) years of hostility toward pre-k programs in Idaho. Pre-k opponents pointed to a definition in Idaho law for the phrase “school age.” It starts at 5-years-old. Therefore, they argued, it’s illegal to teach a 4-year-old in a public school.
The conflict reached a peak in 2007 with an attempt to shut down the Boise School District’s two preschools for non-special needs kids. Bryan Fischer, then head of the religious conservative group the Idaho Values Alliance, was one of those who opposed the program. He equates public pre-k to the government raising children.
“We know the optimal nurturing environment is in a home, where they can receive the attention and direction and care and training of a parent,” Fischer says. “Especially a mother who are uniquely equipped for those kinds of responsibilities.”
A public records request uncovered a letter Fischer wrote asking a lawmaker to get the state’s Attorney General involved in the pre-k debate. The AG opinion, though not legally binding, largely diffused the issue. It said it’s legal to teach children under five in Idaho public schools using federal or local money, but not to use state money. Idaho City currently uses federal money. Others such as the Blaine County District use local money. Boise later closed its preschools for non-special needs kids.
Today we don’t know how many Idaho public schools have preschool. The available data is all pre-recession. And researchers who counted in 2008 say accurate information was difficult to come by then. They say because of the long legal debate over pre-k, districts with preschool programs were often afraid to talk about them.
Find more stories in our series on preschool in Idaho at these links:
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