BOISE, Idaho — On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved a new kindergarten bill just hours after House lawmakers rejected a previous version of the legislation.
With a record state budget surplus of nearly $2 billion, many Idaho lawmakers thought the 2022 session could be the year to fund full-day kindergarten.
But as lawmakers hastily approach the session's end, several attempts to pass kindergarten-related legislation have failed to cross the finish line.
Now, a new bill pitched by the House and Senate Education Committee leadership could be lawmakers' last chance.
House Bill 790 pulls from two education-related bills that failed this session:
- Senate Bill 1373: sent back to committee on Tuesday, this legislation will redefine how K-3 literacy funding from the state is divided between schools – placing greater emphasis on improvement and economically disadvantaged students
- House Bill 653: debate on the bill has been postponed by House lawmakers several times in the last week. If passed, it would require districts to disclose how they plan to spend their supplemental levy dollars
Republican Rep. Lance Clow from Twin Falls – one of the bill's sponsors – said that the new legislation provides schools with the means to address literacy.
"Sending money out to these teachers so they can maintain proper education for all their students is important," Clow said. "But the schools are also going to be incentivized to get their students to move from below-basic to basic, basic to proficient and then maintain that proficiency. I think that's important to note."
If signed into law, the bill would direct the state to nearly triple its K-3 literacy intervention programs funding from $26.1 million to $72.7 million. The extra $46.6 million for early literacy programs is one of Gov. Brad Little's goals for the 2022 session.
Bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Ryan Kerby from New Plymouth, said the addition is enough for every Idaho school district to offer free, full-day kindergarten. Kerby said that schools don't have to use the funding for kindergarten and could apply it to alternative literacy programs.
"(Schools) can do kindergarten. They can do smaller class sizes. They can hire more aides. They could buy curriculum," Kerby said. "They have the flexibility to do what they want."
The idea of uniform, state-funded full-day kindergarten has been discussed among lawmakers for years. Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, told Idaho News 6 that many schools would welcome help.
"We could do a better job funding early childhood education," Oppenheimer said on Tuesday. "We have been waiting for the state to offer funding for full-day kindergarten for years."
Kindergarten is optional in Idaho and would remain optional if the new legislation passed. The state currently provides funding for half-day kindergarten. Still, Oppenheimer said some districts had developed full-day programs through grant funding or supplemental levy revenue.
"It puts a strain on that school district by not having that state funding to be able to put into that bucket," she said. "They have to cobble together other funding mechanisms. Whether it's grants, tuition that families pay, or levies."
While Oppenheimer said keeping kindergarten optional for districts is a positive, Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking disagreed in a committee meeting on Tuesday.
"I think we may still have a problem in the state with uniformity," Ward-Engelking said. "I'm hoping we'll see how this looks and see where we go from here, but not rule out the possibility that we still need to offer that full-day optional kindergarten to everyone."
Under the new legislation, half the funding would be distributed based on K-3 enrollment. According to the bill, the remaining 50% would be divided between school districts based on year-to-year improvements in Idaho Reading Indicator scores.
Republican Rep. Ron Nate from Rexburg argued that despite the state's recent uptick in literacy funding, IRI scores are still low.
"We're spending more and more money and getting less and less results," he said. "Our Constitution directs that we provide public schools in a general uniform and thorough manner. This will make it less uniform across the state."
Right now, schools receive more funding based on how many students score below-proficient – rather than "rewarding" districts that improve, Kerby said. He said that the new funding formula described in HB 790 would also award more funding for economically disadvantaged students.
"There's a tremendous amount of research that shows that economic disadvantaged kids are coming in lower, and they're very difficult to move up," Kerby said. "This levels the playing field for all school districts, and it gives the school districts with those types of students some additional resources to work with those kids."