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Aaron Thompson and Peyton Stilwell, both 4, race a car around a track in their Head Start classroom, which is housed in a public elementary school in Caldwell, Idaho. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

IDAHO CITY, Idaho — In 1864, the tiny town of Idaho City was the biggest American settlement in the state. Now, with the gold rush long over, the logging industry nearly collapsed and few good jobs left in the area, the local K-12 school graduates fewer than 35 students a year.

Nevertheless, since 1999, every 4-year-old in town has been offered an option most 4-year-olds in Idaho don’t get: a spot in a free, public preschool program.

“Preschool can be a great resource in rural communities,” said John McFarlane, the district superintendent who doubles as the seventh- through 12th-grade principal. “We can’t go to the museum; we can’t go to the Discovery Center. We don’t have licensed day care. We don’t want to assign [our kids] to a rural life for their whole life if they want something else.”

Initially, the 352-student district covered the preschool program, as well as a parent education program, with private funding from philanthropists. When that ran out, they paid for the preschool with federal money the town received to compensate for the federally owned forestland that surrounds Idaho City, but produces no local tax revenue and cannot be developed. That money, allocated by the Secure Rural Schools Act, proved anything but secure because the Act has to be periodically renewed by Congress. Since 2008, Congress has been approving less money with each last-minute renewal.

57 — percentage of Idaho children under age six with all available parents working outside the home

When the forest funds became too unpredictable in 2014, educators asked residents to back the preschool program directly through a local property tax. Voters in this hardscrabble town responded. They approved the measure in 2014 with a 66 percent majority and renewed it in 2016 with a 67 percent majority. Today, 18 students, most of the soon-to-be incoming kindergarten class, attend the optional preschool program.

But despite the program’s local popularity, none of the $40,000 it takes to run Idaho City’s preschool comes from the state. And, due to the wording of the Idaho constitution, McFarlane and his team can’t even use any of the district’s state K-12 funding for the 4-year-olds they serve.

Idaho is one of just six states — the others are New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and Montana — that do not offer any funding for preschool. A significant body of research shows that high-quality preschools produce long-term academic and social benefits for children. Nevertheless, resistance to spending on preschool runs deep in Idaho and the other hold-out states, not least because they are home to voters and politicians who strongly believe in family autonomy and minimal government intervention.

Those philosophies bump up hard against the reality that 57 percent of Idaho children under age six live with parents who work elsewhere during the day, according to Kids Count, a national survey. Those children have to go somewhere while their parents work.

The limited subsidized coverage leaves a lot of working families unable to afford private child care or preschool, but too well-off to qualify for public assistance. Only 3 percent of Idahoans under age 5 are served by Head Start, the federal early education program for children living in poverty, according to a report by the National Institute of Early Education Research. Another 3 percent receive federally subsidized vouchers for child care through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Parents of the rest of the kids — still more than half the state’s young children — must find other options. Yet, addressing that reality with government programs is anathema to the fiercely independent and often socially conservative lawmakers of the Mountain West.

Related opinion: We’re asking the wrong questions about early childhood education

“I’m afraid the message of some pre-K programs is, ‘Parents, we don’t need you,’ ” said Idaho state Sen. Steven Thayn, a Republican and the vice-chairman of the senate education committee. “That’s been my concern about pre-K, that parents would let that responsibility slip to the state.”

It is Thayn’s conviction that families are “the most efficient social service delivery system ever devised.” And he thinks the only way for a government intervention to succeed is to work directly with families.

“I’m afraid the message of some pre-K programs is, ‘Parents, we don’t need you.’ ”

Despite his strong beliefs, Thayn isn’t a hardliner. According to the results of the state’s reading indicator evaluation, 49 percent of Idaho’s kindergartners show up not ready to learn to read. And that bothers Thayn enough that he’s become convinced it’s time for the state to play a role in getting young children kindergarten-ready. He is currently working across the aisle and with early education advocates to draft a bill to provide $5 million in funding for early education while respecting the role of parents.

Thayn’s recognition that most parents can no longer afford to stay home with their young children is in keeping with a national trend among conservative policymakers, said Katharine Stevens, a resident scholar with a focus on early education at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “We want to make sure their kids’ early development is not jeopardized even as the parents are doing the right thing by working hard for those kids,” Stevens said.

Thayn said that the draft bill he is working on would provide online educational materials to stay-at-home parents, create homeschool cooperatives and award stipends to parents who get their children academically prepared to start kindergarten. Were the bill to become law, it would also provide matching funds for communities that want to offer shared-cost preschools similar to those offered by Mississippi.

“In Idaho, generally, we like choices,” Thayn said.

The proposal, which already has several prospective co-sponsors, will likely not get a formal hearing this year, though the state senate and house education committees did listen to presentations on the idea. The next step is just to start “showing it around” to other lawmakers, Thayn said.

Given that there have been at least five attempts to pass a bill funding early education in Idaho since 1999, advocates here aren’t holding their breath for a sudden change.

“If we could get someone to come down with a couple of tablets that say, ‘Teach early childhood education,’ that might work,” joked Idaho state Rep. Hy Kloc, a Democrat who has sponsored much of the preschool legislation to be proposed to the state legislature since 2013. And even though he’s shared those bills’ sponsorships with Republicans, none have passed.

preschool support
Oscar Velador, 5, builds “people” he describes as his mom and dad out of connecting blocks in his Caldwell, Idaho, Head Start classroom. He later builds himself and his siblings. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

The other hold-out states have reached similar stalemates. “All state programs are being cut and there’s no traction for adding anything for early education,” wrote Kari Eakins, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Education, by email. Education department spokespersons in South Dakota and New Hampshire also confirmed that there are no high-level talks of creating state preschool programs in their states.

There has been slightly more movement in Utah and Montana. Utah offers an online-only program meant to provide stay-at-home parents with educational materials for preschool-age children. Montana, whose governor is very pro-preschool, won a federal Preschool Development Grant in 2014, planning to use the funds to “improve access to high quality preschool education in 16 high needs communities,” according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction. However, neither state has a direct preschool funding stream.

The majority of state preschool programs that do exist are small, serving less than one-third of resident 4-year-olds nationally. Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia that do spend money on early childhood education, only four — Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and D.C. — offer high-quality programs that could provide a spot for every child, regardless of family income. Thus, the problem of finding quality, affordable preschool options is not unique to working families in Idaho or the other hold-out states. But it is a bigger problem when there is no state aid to defray the costs for those families.

Related: See where public preschool access and quality overlap

In several Idaho communities, educators have given up waiting for the state to come to the rescue and are finding ways to fill the void on their own.

A popular parent-education program in Sandpoint, far to the north, was the brainchild of Dick Cvitanich, the former superintendent, said Marcia Wilson, the executive director of the Panhandle Alliance for Education, a local philanthropy that runs parenting classes. In Pocatello, a university town in the southeastern part of the state, the United Way is working with the schools and the local division of Monsanto, the agriculture giant, to provide a free summer preschool program for some students, among other initiatives, said Kim Hirning, director of early learning for the United Way of Southeastern Idaho.

In Caldwell, just 30 minutes outside of Boise, the goal is to get all local 4-year-olds into some form of public preschool. The city’s first step toward this goal was to get all of the preschool programs and dollars under the same roof, literally.

The Caldwell district has long run four preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds with developmental delays, as they are required to do by federal law. The Caldwell YMCA’s heavily subsidized (with privately fundraised dollars) preschool program also operates out of the district elementary schools. And in January, the local Head Start moved three of its classes into the schools, too. All told, the consolidated efforts provide part-time preschool spots to 150 kids, about a third of the district’s incoming kindergarten class of 500.

preschool support
Catalina Larrocoechea, 4, launches a spaceship during free-play time at her public preschool in Idaho City, Idaho. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Next year’s goals are to start using a consistent, high-quality preschool curriculum across all three programs and to ensure that the children attend preschool in the same building in which they will attend kindergarten, said Julie Mead, director of special services for the Caldwell School District.

“The benefit for us, from a logistical standpoint, is creating the opportunity to have kindergartners ready for school,” Mead said. “Around the country, kids are coming into school much better prepared than around here.”

Specifically, the Idaho state reading indicator shows that half of the state’s kindergartners show up not knowing the alphabet, not knowing many alphabet sounds and in some cases not even knowing which way a book opens and how to turn the pages.

Steven Barnett, executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said such skills are actually far too low a bar for measuring school readiness. Learning the alphabet and a few letter sounds are skills so basic that “you might be able to train a pigeon on them,” he said. “I could teach any kid that in six weeks.”

What’s harder to evaluate are questions of whether or not a child has some amount of emotional self-control, some social skills for interacting with peers and a basic idea of what might be expected of them in a classroom, he said.

And “the real problem is that a kid who doesn’t know letters probably doesn’t know that many words,” Barnett added. Vocabulary size, unlike an ability to recite the ABCs, has been proven to be a strong predictor of later school success.

There are two ways researchers have found for a child to obtain a large enough vocabulary to ensure some level of academic success: The first is to be born into a family of people willing and able to talk, read, sing and play with them. The second is to attend a high-quality preschool.

Related: Which city has the best public preschools?

Back in Idaho City, it’s free-play time in the portable classroom that serves as the district’s preschool.

preschool support
After finishing a play-dough “birthday cake,” Taigon LaMantia, 4, pushes in a chair during clean-up time in her Idaho City public preschool classroom. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Catalina Larrocoechea, 4, sits on a little yellow couch in the library area flipping through “The Three Snow Bears” by Jan Brett, which features an Alaskan Native Goldilocks tasting soup, trying on fur-lined winter boots and inadvisably falling asleep in a “just-right” bed in the bears’ igloo. Catalina knows the whole story and narrates it in her own words as she flips the pages.

In another area, Nicholuas Bartholomew, 5, stacks pink blocks, each one smaller than the last, into a towering pyramid. At a table near the center of the room, Matthew Benafield, 4, is carefully putting together a puzzle, kitten eye by kitten paw. Each piece is numbered on the back and corresponds with a number in the wooden puzzle frame. Matthew points this out, a keen observation for a child so young. In the back of the room, Taigon LaMantia, 4, and Aralyn Balafas, 5, are making a playdough birthday cake for their friend Bristol Hileman, 4.

“She’s my best friend,” Aralyn said.

“She’s my best friend too!” Taigon added.

“I know the funding is hard, but I would love it if [preschool] was five days a week.”

Hearing the birthday cake story, Bristol’s mother, Ashley Hileman, laughed: It wasn’t her daughter’s birthday. But Hileman was happy to learn about the budding friendships. She works at the Boise County Courthouse and loves the preschool program for its educational benefits, especially in math, and for the child care it provides.

“I think every school should have to do preschool,” Hileman said. “I know the funding is hard, but I would love it if it was five days a week.”

Idaho City’s McFarlane, along with Jamie Pilkerton, the town’s elementary school principal, and Beth Woodruff, the special education director, have been to Boise many times, most recently on February 22, trying to convince state lawmakers that programs like theirs are good for kids, for families and for Idaho. They tell stories about kids like Catalina, who is definitely going to be ready to learn how to read in kindergarten. They share anecdotes from their first local preschool graduates who, years later, became the leaders of their senior class, participating in more honors and AP classes than their non-preschooled peers and pushing more directly toward college. They point out that better-prepared high school graduates will earn more secondary degrees and act as a boon to Idaho’s economy.

“I feel like we’ve gotten movement,” Pilkerton said of the slow gathering of political will to fund early education. “But almost 20 years have gone by and we’re just getting them to kind of consider options.”

Asked what difference state funding would make here in Idaho City, McFarlane, Pilkerton and Woodruff just grinned.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Woodruff asked her colleagues. They all agreed that it would. Before they left McFarlane’s office a few minutes later, they checked in on the progress of their latest grant application, the one that will help them fund their public preschool for one more year.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

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