Why Pre-K Won’t Happen in Idaho

The Association of Education for Young Children published a new poll last week that leaves no doubt as to where Idahoans stand, in principle, to providing Pre-K services for Idaho’s children.

A summary: eighty percent of parents who have children five and younger support state supported Pre-K, and sixty-six percent of all surveyed registered voters, regardless of having young children, also support the idea.

In other words, it would seem that even in the conservative Gem State that Pre-K is not a toxic cocktail to discuss at the statehouse.

But keep in mind that while this survey displays residents’ attitudes about such a program, ask an additional question about raising taxes to pay for it and suddenly a very different conversation starts to take shape.

See, we could also survey residents about their attitude of investing more money into our schools, in general, and likely to also get overwhelming support for that idea, in principle, to increase resources.

But the second a proposal to generate the revenue needed for either of these ideas that requires increasing taxes hits the statehouse floor, it becomes political suicide.

The reality is that Idaho’s GOP representatives understand their first priority in their statewide platform is, if anything, to reduce the tax burden on residents and businesses.

If an idea germinates that would allow Idaho’s economic growth to pay for a new program without raising taxes, it might have a start.

But it doesn’t. The cost to pay for even half day Pre-K services would simply be too high for the state to absorb without increased revenue.

Consider this: Idaho has 300,000 K-12 students. Assuming, all things equal, that these grade level populations are evenly distributed (they are not–they balloon in size in the primary levels in comparison to secondary–but for the sake of simplicity stuck with me here) then that means that each grade level has approximately 25,000 students.

So, in theory, adding Pre-K would mean adding approximately 25k more students to Idaho’s public schools.

Let’s assume that to save money Idaho makes it a half day program and gives roughly half the funds as a typical full day public education student. Let’s set that price at a likely much too conservative bill of $2,000 per student.

At 25,000 students this results in a new tab of 50 million dollars. And that is a conservative projection. Hardly the type of budget inflation that can simply be absorbed by a growing economy.

So back to politics 101 in the Gem State. Here’s a list of things to expect if this debate even gets a single hearing:

Expect the conspiracy theory fear-mongering delegation to claim that this is a plan developed in a smoky dark room at the United Nations to snatch parents children from the cradle to indoctrinate them with communism (I won’t name names here, but some personalities from North Idaho strike me as screaming this message at their rallies). Oh, and somehow black helicopters piloted by Karl Marx will also be involved.

Expect the typical argument that this age is simply too young to benefit from early education despite volumes of literature that indicate otherwise, particularly for free and reduced, English language learners, and special needs kiddos.

Expect the particularly venomous argument that parents working multiple jobs on Idaho’s wages to support the household should, somehow, have time to do this instruction themselves with a clear connotation that a parent that would choose to take advantage of such a program must be lazy or a welfare queen.

And that’s assuming that even in a particularly odious debate that there’s a governor even willing to sign a bill if the legislature actually is able to send his desk an agreement. Ditto JFAC agreeing to fund the program even if it is passed on theory.

Otter doesn’t seem at all inclined to expand general fund distributions. Ahlquist and Labrador are both running a campaign of lower taxes. So, Little, maybe?

And if you are betting on a blue pony to win this election, I encourage you to review AJ’s last campaign results. He ran it like a professional and stood on issues that Idahoans, in principle, agree with.

But come election, the R next to the name is really the only thing that matters. Maybe Paulette Jordon has a plan to flip independents and moderates. I wouldn’t count on it.

So, as a State, we are yet again at a place where majority support of an issue does not appear to have the inertia to actually change the status quo once the change reaches the statehouse.

Perhaps a tax free savings plan is introduced wherein the parents who can already afford to send their kids to Pre-K can reap a tax break from it while those who couldn’t afford it before continue to not be able to afford it after.

Here’s the deal: More and more districts are going to start putting this issue to voters in the form of a levy. While this will likely result in some districts obtaining Pre-K services, it will also exasperate the existing trend of inequity for Idaho’s students depending on the zip code they live in.

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