Pre-K: Invest Now. Save for Later.

Did you know that Idaho is one of five states in the U.S. that does not offer state-funded preschool? And did you know that Idaho Democratic legislators have been pushing for a pilot preschool program for 5 years?

Every session, the Idaho GOP scratches their collective heads and wonder– how can we get more students to “go-on” and work towards a post-secondary degree? They say it’s the testing, or the teachers, or the textbooks that cause low performance. But you know where this starts. It starts when our children are 3 and 4 years old. Less than 54% of Idaho’s children are ready to learn upon entering kindergarten. This impacts their learning for life.

Would you like to see a state-funded preschool program? Email the House Education and Senate Education Committees and tell them you want to see state-funded preschool in Idaho.

Idaho’s burning and lawmakers won’t buy a hose

If ever a group of people got something upside down and inside out, it has to be the way Idaho’s Legislature views early-childhood education.

To some lawmakers, it’s a luxury.

To others, it’s an investment. If you make it, fine; you’ll collect a dividend. If not, no harm’s been done.

But because most see pre-kindergarten as somebody else’s concern, they’ve left Idaho among only six states that spend nothing preparing children for school. In doing so, they’ve ignored some harsh realities about growing up in Idaho.

Such as the fact that in a high-poverty state, roughly half of Idaho’s children enter public school classrooms for the first time not knowing the alphabet, unable to count to 20, or even 10, or fully comprehend colors and shapes.

The price Idaho pays has been defined as mediocre high school graduation rates and a dwindling percentage of high school grads who are continuing their education. In other words, it’s a missed opportunity to help more people succeed in life and become productive citizens.

If only the situation were that benign.

Listen to retired 3rd District Judge Gregory Culet’s testimony at last month’s legislative “informational” hearing on pre-K, however, and you realize Idaho isn’t merely deferring the chance to reap a benefit. Idaho’s backyard has caught fire – and the state’s elected leadership is unwilling to even buy a water hose to dampen the flames.

Before he retired about five years ago, Culet spent 31 years on the bench. For the first 21 years, he served as a magistrate judge, which put him in touch with juvenile offenders. As he pored over pre-sentence investigations, Culet began to see a pattern: Most of the children in his courtroom struggled in school – right from the first day when they arrived unprepared to learn. Without proper intervention, they failed to catch up. Often the problem escalated to the point that they became disillusioned and quit school.

More trouble followed. During his 10 years as a district court judge, it was Culet’s job to sentence adults for felonies. Again as he looked over pre-sentence investigation reports, he noticed four out of five of the people appearing before him had dropped out of high school.

“What shocked me was that a substantial percentage of the individuals that I sentenced for felony crimes shared one overriding common denominator: That they were not ready or prepared to learn when they started school,” Culet said. Pre-sentence investigations “showed that the vast majority of them were not ready and prepared to learn when they started school. So in a nutshell, the earlier we address this problem, the easier it is turn this around.”

In other words, Idaho is not merely stepping over dollars to pick up a few nickels.

Its law-abiding citizens are being victimized by crime. They’re being burglarized. Some of them are being assaulted. There’s a culture of drug and alcohol abuse.

Of the people in the custody of Idaho’s Department of Correction, 21.5 percent got there by stealing property, another 26.4 percent were convicted of assaults and nearly 6 percent were guilty of homicide. That leaves 20.2 percent convicted of sexual offenses, 21.4 percent who violated the state’s drug laws and 4.6 percent who are in prison on an alcohol-related offense.

Idaho’s taxpayers are spending on average of $65 a day to house them -far more than the price of a college education.

All of which has left us caught up in a vicious cycle: Many of these troubled adults have children of their own who may be growing up in an environment of fear and toxic stress before they ever walk into a classroom.

Not every kid who has a shaky start in school ends up before a judge. Nonetheless, he remains at greater risk of dropping out of school, becoming dependent on social services and working at dead-end jobs.

But until Culet spoke up last month, it was easier to assume only young people suffer the consequences of Idaho’s indifference.

Turns out we all are paying for it.

Dearly. – M.T.

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