In one southeastern Idaho town, families strive to “read, talk, play” with their children every day as the larger community moves toward universal preschool.
Elsewhere outside of Boise, a number of previously inaccessible services—a food pantry, a Head Start preschool, a health center, and migrant family outreach—are now located under one roof near downtown and within easy reach. to families in need.
In the northern region, where early learning programs operate in isolation, providers meet in person and online to share ideas, participate in training and build relationships.
These are among dozens of special programs called “early learning partnerships” that have sprung up in recent years in communities across Idaho. It’s part of a coordinated but bottom-up approach, supported by early learning advocates but led by local people, to build an early care and education system in a state that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Idaho is one of the last states to provide no funding for public preschool. In fact, it is unconstitutional for K-12 schools there to spend public funding on children as young as 5 years old.
Even as many states, including politically conservative ones, began investing in early education, Idaho resisted, with some far-right lawmakers arguing that more government intervention in education would only harm children and erode “traditional” values, including the nuclear family.
But that doesn’t reflect the reality of Idahoans. More than half of children under the age of 6 need some form of care because their parents work. About 28 percent of families need child care but are unable to access it, a gap that prevents some parents from working and strengthening their families’ economic well-being. (It is estimated that Idaho’s economy loses nearly half a billion dollars each year due to inadequate child care infrastructure.)
With neither the federal government nor the state of Idaho stepping up to support young children and families, despite this great need, early learning advocates across the state have organized local programs that simultaneously address the challenges communities are currently facing. build support for future efforts. Other red states have adopted the cooperative model, but Idaho’s approach is unique in that it lacks state funding.
The success of locally developed early learning solutions in the Gem State could be a roadmap for other parts of the country where elected leaders refuse to invest in early care and education, advocates say.
‘Community Spirit Supports Everyone’s Political Agenda’
The first of the collaborations launched in 2018.
Leaders of the nonprofit Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children were making no progress in convincing state lawmakers. However, they knew that children had a hard time coming to kindergarten, missing all sorts of academic and developmental milestones and expecting to somehow catch up. And low-income families were squeezed by the cost of care and lack of quality options.
Idaho AEYC executive director Beth Oppenheimer believed Idahoans needed support. He and his colleagues had the idea to start presenting to families with or without the support of state leaders.
“Let’s start building a system. Let’s just get started anything,” Oppenheimer recalls thinking.
Through a grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation, Idaho AEYC funded the creation of 10 early learning cooperatives across the state to increase access to high-quality, affordable early care and education opportunities. These programs will bring together local leaders from the education, business and nonprofit sectors, as well as parents and community members, to ask: What early childhood challenges are we trying to solve where we live?
In the five years since its inception, the program has grown from 10 local collaborators to 25. Many were created in deep-red, rural communities represented by some of the same state legislators who have publicly opposed early learning investments.
But that’s the beauty of bringing neighbors together to create their own solutions, supporters say.
Tennille Call, interim director of education for the United Way of Southeast Idaho, a nonprofit that serves as a pillar of cooperation in the region, notes that there are many conservatives in Idaho who like to support local control of policies and programs. state or federal mandates. “It’s local control,” said the collaborative model.
In the small farming town of American Falls, he was the district superintendent who promoted the “read, talk, play” message that was widespread among families and made early learning a point of pride.
“Here, the community can get behind it because it’s a community effort,” Call says of American Falls. “Community spirit trumps anyone’s political agenda.”
Read about how American Falls, a one-stop farming community in conservative Idaho, has embraced a goal supporters describe as progressive: universal preschool.
Martin Balben, director of Idaho AEYC’s early learning collaborative project, says the adoption of local collaboratives, as well as their scale and strength, underscores the desperation many families feel.
“The story here,” says Balben, “is that the need to invest in early childhood education, especially birth to 5, is so great that local residents continue to ignore the culture wars in Idaho.”
Heather Lee, director of operations for the Idaho AEYC’s Early Learning Collaborative Project, notes that parents’ desires for their children to thrive transcend ideology.
Lee says you don’t hear “bitter partisanship” from families like you do at the state Capitol. “You hear stories of struggle.”
Inherent in the model is the understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work in states as geographically, politically, religiously and culturally diverse as Idaho, which is 500 miles from its tip on the Canadian border. the base is adjacent to Nevada and Utah.
Kathy Kowalski, owner and director of The Learning Garden, an early learning program in Post Falls, a small town in northern Idaho, feels that the community-driven nature of these efforts respects the uniqueness of each region in the state.
“Our communities are very different. It’s hard for individuals in Boise to really understand what’s going on in North Idaho,” shares Kowalski. “That’s what I love about early learning collaboratives—we’re bringing it back to the local.”
Playing the Long Game with Short-Term Results
Idaho did not invent the idea of local early learning partnerships. Mississippi has been using the model for ten years. Arkansas is launching a similar program.
The difference is that those countries finance their cooperation.
“We have to do it the other way around,” says Oppenheimer. “We have to build the system for state funding, while other states have figured out how to build the system and fund it at the same time.”
For now, the experiment is working. Every day, thousands of Idaho families benefit from programs created in their communities.
At American Falls, families are more involved in their children’s learning and development. That includes fathers who, supporters say, are significantly more involved in raising their children than fathers in the region. About three-quarters of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds now attend high-quality preschool, compared with about a quarter five years ago. Tests that measure children’s early literacy levels have been continuously improved since the collaboration began.
In North Idaho, a five-county area where child care is as difficult as it is for families, child care scholarships have helped more than 500 families care for their children in the past two years. Most recipients are single parents who work full-time.
“When I saw that we were getting a scholarship … a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” one parent told North Idaho co-op leaders. “I’ve gone from constantly thinking about how I can continue to provide for my family to knowing that we’re going to be okay.”
“Having a few hundred dollars in our bank account made a world of difference in what we could provide for our children,” said the parent.
Longer term, Oppenheimer hopes the success of the collaborative will be undeniable, and if local residents and early learning advocates build the system, funding and thus sustainability will follow.
“Our goal is not to fund this forever,” says Oppenheimer of the Idaho AEYC. “We are a non-profit organization. We cannot be responsible for funding early childhood education in Idaho.”
Future funding doesn’t have to come from the state, although that would be a pleasant surprise for early learning advocates. This can come from both business and public-private partnerships.
Some collaborators are already so deeply rooted in their communities that these programs will continue if Oppenheimer’s group disappears.
A number of businesses in American Falls have sponsored the community’s early learning programming. A car dealership in town once covered the cost of a family game night, and a local hospital provided supplies for another family engagement event.
Lamb Weston, a major Idaho potato producer, operates a processing plant in American Falls. The company joined a local partnership and helped fund scholarships to expand preschool opportunities for children in the city.
“Businesses like to finance things in their backyard, especially in rural Idaho,” Oppenheimer says.
But it’s more than charity for companies like Lamb Weston, she adds: “They’ve found that employees don’t want to be sick as often because they have childcare. They have more people going to work every day and wanting to work. Their employee base in American Falls is consistent and growing.
While American Falls is, as Oppenheimer puts it, the “gold star” of Idaho’s collaborative model, other cities are not far behind. The existence of their programs—not to mention their success—proves that local, grassroots efforts can be a way to build early care and education infrastructure despite a lack of government support.
“It’s tough,” Oppenheimer says, “and you have to play the long game. But we’re in it for the long game.”