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Failing Preschool 

Idaho needs to start helping the state's 4-year-olds succeed

Idaho has many soul-rewarding attributes. The state offers a gorgeous, four-season outdoors experience. Indoors, the Idaho populace is predominantly filled with good, kind, honest, well-intentioned, God-fearing folk.

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But, in so many ways, Idaho is simply... let's face it, backward.

Right now, my complaint is that Idaho sits soundly at the bottom of the 50 states in early childhood education; it's one of only six states that do not provide any public funds for preschoolers, those lively, eager 4-year-olds who gobble up ways to put things together or take them apart.

It never ceases to amaze me how fast these little children can latch on to big puzzles and, if they're lucky, begin a multiyear relationship with that great Danish invention — the LEGO. Four-year-olds are quick to learn.

Back in the 1970s, Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus convinced the Idaho Legislature to fund public kindergartens. The governor's argument that kindergarten is economically smart business was wise then, as including 4-year-olds in the picture is now. Unfortunately, the requirement that students attend kindergarten has never made it into law.

Today, Idaho children whose parents can afford private preschools enjoy the chance to learn how to learn, as well as how to work and play with other kids. Alphabet and numbers games, songs and romps get them ready for kindergarten and the world.

For the 3- and 4-year-olds in money-short households, Head Start offers a fine preschool experience. Unfortunately, there are only enough federal dollars devoted to Head Start to make room for a fraction of the eligible kids. In 2015, Kootenai County Head Start classes were only able to enroll 3 percent of the eligible children. And we don't know how many Head Start dollars will dry up in the ongoing Trump-Ryan budget process.

The children who have attended neither preschool nor kindergarten start their school experience at a discouraging disadvantage. It's a struggle to keep up with their classmates. For these less fortunate kids, their first school experience is either a confusing jumble or a scary jungle.

According to the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, 50 percent of Idaho's children appear at their neighborhood primary school's door each fall not ready to read.

Every child with normal abilities can learn to read, but each child has his or her own individual path to learning. Some will take longer to find the way. One key to 100 percent of students learning to read by third grade is to start earlier, and for teachers to have fewer children in their first- and second-grade classrooms.

Another key is convincing young parents of the importance of talking and reading to their toddlers every day. A young child's brainpower expands by absorbing stories in picture books and songs and games.

It does take a village, and the village is there for the kids. Libraries are free and specialize in picture books that are both artful and art-full. When they can, libraries offer story hours for the very young.

We can take heart that every school district in Idaho but one was able to pass their bond and/or levy issue on March 14. This proves that Idahoans recognize the importance of education for their children's future and their community's economic health. That's huge.

As I write, in the final days of this year's legislative session, the Idaho Legislature is still struggling to pass an income tax relief measure for the wealthy, legislation that the broad public doesn't care about and isn't asking for. More significant is the bill removing the sales tax from groceries, which makes good sense to most people. The legislature won't lead in finding a way to create public funding for preschoolers, but it will follow if there is the demand.

Finding a new source of funding for preschoolers is essential, and very tricky. I have laughingly suggested marijuana as a good sin tax to fund preschools for 4-year-olds. That would be an over-the-moon distance for Idaho to jump. Better to save that option to replace the grocery tax.

Nevertheless, there are many individuals and groups around the state working to build the momentum needed to lead backward Idaho forward for 4-year-olds. Tiny Idaho City has been funding pre-kindergarten children for 18 years now, and has a record of success to show for it.

Here in Coeur d'Alene, the University of Idaho, in collaboration with Coeur d'Alene School District #271, has received a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation to work toward the goal of enabling 100 percent of the district's students to read at grade level. The project will focus on parent engagement and will target neighborhoods with young families.

This project is an exciting step in the right direction for Idaho's 4-year-olds, as well as for all children on the learning-to-read spectrum. ♦

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