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Democrats, some GOP officials back Idaho pre-K

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Democratic and some Republican advocates for state-supported preschool Monday intensified their push for a $1.4 million, five-school pilot program they hope will eventually open the door in Idaho to broader pre-kindergarten education.

Boise Rep. Hy Kloc, a Democrat, was joined at a press conference in the Idaho Capitol by Republican Rep. Douglas Hancey of Rexburg and Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney in promoting their three-year proposal.

Enlisting GOP supporters — typically leery of such “pre-K” programs out of concern that parents, not the government, should be raising kids — will be critical to the success of Kloc’s bill. Idaho’s Legislature is 81 percent Republican.

Additionally, they will have to overcome suspicion over a program that’s among Democratic President Barack Obama’s top second-term priorities. Some lawmakers also are concerned the program’s ultimate cost, should it be expanded to include all Idaho schools, might bust the state’s budget for education.

Raney told reporters that boosting pre-kindergarten education will pay off for Idaho because people who succeed in school commit fewer crimes. He cited several studies that have been done across the nation.

“This is simply — in my mind — a no-brainer,” said Raney, who is also the sheriff in Idaho’s largest county by population. He estimated the state could save tens of millions of dollars in incarceration costs by offering pre-K education to students whose parents otherwise may not be able to afford it.

One such study, promoted by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, concludes that a child without an early childhood education is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teenage parent and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Kindergarten in Idaho isn’t mandatory.

Additionally, the state is forbidden to spend state taxpayer dollars on educating children four years old and under.

Kloc hopes enlisting the private sector will help convince conservative lawmakers to change that: About half the money for his proposal would come from sources outside government, including business.

The state Department of Education would play a critical role in helping choose schools that would participate, according to his plan.

“We can invest in our young people and play an active role in shaping our future,” Kloc said. “Or we can sit on our hands and hope that things work out to our advantage.”

In his State of the Union speech last March, Obama touted the merits of universal pre-kindergarten programs. Backers say it’s an antidote to teen pregnancy, violent crime and helping more students graduate from high school.

The Republicans who joined Kloc behind the proposal contend it isn’t nearly as sweeping as Obama’s call for universal pre-K. It’s simply meant to help gather Idaho-based data about such a program, something that until now hasn’t been available, Hancey said.

“It’s a pilot program,” he added. “We’re not trying to revolutionize education in one year.”

Across the nation, states spent about $5.1 billion on pre-K programs in 2012. Idaho is one of 10 states without a state-funded pre-K program, according to the advocacy group National Institute for Early Education Research.

Kloc didn’t have estimates for what it would cost if the Idaho Legislature were to eventually adopt such programs beyond the five schools he envisions, but he pledged to gather that data in time for his bill’s introduction later this session.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he’s supportive of the idea of Idaho moving to educate kids earlier in their school career.

Still, he fears the cost of such a program could outstrip Idaho’s resources, especially because it’s in competition with other education priorities: Raising teacher pay, restoring recession-battered funding to keep schools’ lights; and training educators for the state’s new “Common Core” standards that supporters say is meant to boost critical thinking skills.

“My concern with this is not having funding for the educational programs that we’ve already got,” Goedde said. “But I’m open to discussion.”

Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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