BOISE, Idaho — State-funded, full-day kindergarten could soon be available statewide following the House Education Committee's approval of new legislation on Monday morning in a 9-5 vote.
The bill would direct an additional $46.6 million to the state's ongoing literacy fund — which currently holds about $26.1 million.
If passed, bill sponsor Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby from New Plymouth said the legislation would also redefine literacy funding to Idaho school districts. Currently, schools receive additional money to assist students who score below proficient on the Idaho Reading Indicator.
Alternatively, the new legislation would award more funding to schools whose students' IRI scores improve year-to-year or achieve proficiency.
While school districts can use the $46.6 million addition to establish full-day kindergarten services, Kerby said it is not required. According to the bill text, alternative uses can also include additional math and science courses. Idaho School Board Association Deputy Director Quinn Perry praised the bill for offering funding for more than just kindergarten implementation.
"This is more than just kindergarten," Perry said. "This is helping schools invest in strategic ways to support dyslexia, to the sport to support our economically disadvantaged students to support our English language learners and more."
Idaho is one of nine states with no district requirements to offer kindergarten. However, Kerby said an estimated 44% of Idaho schools offer some form of kindergarten services.
Kerby said the legislation also would prioritize economically disadvantaged students by counting them at 1.75 students when distributing funding.
"We're going to change the trajectory of their lives," he said on Monday. "This gives them a chance. Otherwise, they're going to have problems. Those are the kids who eventually drop out and end up in our social programs."
Throughout his first term, Republican Gov. Brad Little has declared improving Idaho's K-3 literacy rates a priority and believes it gives students the best chance of success later in life. Little called the legislation "a historic leap forward" on Twitter following the House vote.
Thank you to the House Education members who voted for my literacy initiative. Since day one, my top goal has been ensuring all Idaho students can read proficiently by the end of the third grade. S1373 is a historic leap forward. #LEADINGIDAHO #IDEdu #idleg https://t.co/E134NlqczR— Brad Little (@GovernorLittle) March 14, 2022
The bill is part of a longtime initiative to get all of Idaho's third-grade students to read at grade level. However, in Monday's committee meeting, Kirby noted that efforts to increase the percentage of grade-level readers haven't significantly improved in recent years. Kirby said it was critical the state do more to address literacy gaps, as those children are "most likely to be on social programs, food stamps, or incarcerated."
"By and large, we're just not getting at that bottom 25% of the kids," Kerby said. "That's the entire purpose of this bill, is that we can get more kids reading with the funds that we provide from the state."
Many people who testified on Monday spoke in favor of the legislation. American Association of University Women representative and former teacher Sylvia Chariton said the bill would get Idaho students on the right path early. Chariton said in her years of teaching, she observed how external factors like a families' socio-economic factors can cause children to "arrive at the schoolhouse door having a totally fragmented early childhood learning experience."
"This bill would allow children who are more likely to be unprepared to do well in school and kindergarten, they would have time to catch up to their peers," she said.
"We've always known that high quality public education is a key to later economic prosperity, college and career readiness, and how low and behold this high-quality education really starts early in life...We can't waste any more time. So let's get this passed so more of Idaho's youth can really go-on."
If passed, the money would be divided into two sections:
- Half would go to schools based on average full-time students enrolled in K-3 programs
- The second half would then be distributed based on which schools report the most year-to-year IRI improvement with additional monetary support for economically disadvantaged students
Despite the support of education agencies and several House Education Committee members, the legislation did not sway some lawmakers.
Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon from Stanley said that some school districts — including Boise and Idaho Falls — have already announced their plans to offer full-day kindergarten services without state funding. She noted that those schools have received private funding through the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and posed that more districts rely on alternative resources rather than the state.
Moon additionally referenced the rising cost of housing, gas, and property taxes as a reason not to support spending $46.6 million more on funding literacy programs.
"We have families that are struggling, and now we're talking about $46 million to put into something that may not work," Moon said. "That is a lot of money...This is something I would really be in trouble for if I voted for."
The availability of free, full-day kindergarten in Idaho is limited. According to a report by Bluum, an Idaho nonprofit education organization, only 184 schools offered some form of full-day kindergarten. In the same study, Bluum stated that 162 schools provide part-day kindergarten, and 71 have a hybrid full and part-day program. In Bluum's report, the nonprofit found that children enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs scored higher on the Idaho Reading Indicator test than those with no kindergarten education.
"With only 42% of Idaho kindergartners scoring at or above grade level on the statewide reading assessment in fall 2020, we clearly need more and better early education," the Bluum study says.
Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt from Idaho Falls also questioned whether expanding kindergarten education would benefit young learners, citing that some schools already offer the services. Ehardt added that she had not seen definitive proof it contributes to better test scores.
"Where is the data that shows kids going from half- to full-time are actually going to benefit more," Ehardt said. "It seems like we're not quite getting it the root of the problem."
The bill passed the Senate last week in a 32-2 vote. If the legislation passes the House, it will go to Little for signature.