Idaho State Capitol building in Boise on March 20, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Before his retirement 10 years ago, Greg Culet served for more than 30 years as a magistrate and district court judge in Idaho’s 3rd Judicial District, a sprawling six-county swath of southwestern Idaho. From family law cases to felonies, Culet observed thousands of defendants from behind the bench. Over time he observed one immutable reality.
“During that entire time,” Culet told me recently, “over 80% of the adults I sentenced for criminal felony behavior were high school dropouts,” citizens who, in most cases, struggled from their earliest years to navigate through society because they lacked basic skills needed to succeed in life – they simply were not equipped to learn.
At first, Culet didn’t believe what he was seeing, so for a six-month period he kept detailed notes about the people he was sentencing. The same thing appeared over and over. Eighty percent were educationally challenged. Culet paused his record keeping and then resumed again after six more months and also began closely reading pre-sentence reports about educational background. The data never varied: four out of five persons he sentenced were dropouts, trying to navigate through life without some of the most basic skills, most importantly reading skills.
Culet said he came to understand that the vast majority of people he was putting in jail “were not ready to learn at a very young age and that fact followed them through their lives.”
An enduring debate for the last half century in Idaho has been the question of establishing, sustaining and attempting to expand educational opportunities for very young children. Idaho’s systematic failure to develop a policy for early childhood education is a key factor – perhaps the key factor – in why the state habitually ranks so low in educational achievement.
Idaho debate on early childhood education goes back decades
The ABC television sitcom Ozzie and Harriet went off the air in 1966, but the saccharine sweet portrayal of the Nelson family – Ozzie in suit and tie leaving for work, while wife Harriet, the homemaker, stays behind to manage the household and the couple’s two sons – remains a myth, but a pervasive one.
The 21st Century version of Ozzie and Harriet is more likely to involve both parents holding down a job, or often more than one, while juggling childcare, education and often a limited family income. The Idaho debate over one critical aspect of public policy – early childhood education – goes back to when Ozzie and Harriet were in re-runs.
In late March 1975, and after then-governor Cecil D. Andrus had finally succeeded after five attempts to provide state funding for kindergartens, a letter writer to the South Idaho Press in Burley wasn’t at all happy that 5-year-old Idahoans were finally going to get a better start in life.
“I have been against kindergartens,” the letter writer proclaimed, “because in some cases they have just been a waste of time and money.” That sentiment, repeatedly and effectively rebuffed by Andrus and other supporters of kindergartens, nonetheless has remained a consistent talking point from conservative Idaho legislators when the subject is state support for early childhood education.
Historically, opponents of state funding for kindergartens, legislators like Republican Bill Roberts of Buhl, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the early 1970s, saw the early childhood education issue in zero-sum terms. Giving the youngest students a better, earlier start meant, as Roberts saw it, that “programs from grades one through 12 are going to suffer.” Or put another way, Idaho’s educational pie couldn’t be enlarged, the slices just had to be cut into ever smaller pieces. Only rarely has this kind of thinking been defeated.
Andrus, who had been elected in 1970 and then re-elected in 1974 on a pledge to create kindergartens in Idaho, understood better than his political opponents not only the value of early childhood education, but also that giving kids a new opportunity was a political winner. He helped create a grassroots network of kindergarten activists who cajoled legislators, but for years these advocates ran into a brick wall of determined legislative opposition.
Andrus admitted at the start of the 1975 legislative session that “the opposition is more political than anything else,” and he acknowledged that gaining approval for kindergartens supported by state funding would be seen by some partisans as “too much of a victory for my pet project.”
Most Idahoans today won’t remember Roy Truby, but foot soldiers in the battle to create kindergartens certainly remember the tireless tenacity the young state school superintendent deployed that finally broke the political logjam. Truby, elected state superintendent in 1974, still retains the distinction of serving as an appointed and elected chief state school officer in two different states, and after his time in Idaho he served as superintendent of largest school district in South Carolina.
When kindergarten legislation finally passed the Legislature in 1975, part of Truby’s message was to remind lawmakers that even Mississippi acted on the issue before Idaho had.
“It was pretty obvious that this was the year of the 5-year-old,” Truby said when Andrus inked the legislation, and he said the victory left him “very optimistic about the future of education in this state.” Sadly, that optimism, at least with regard to expanding early childhood education in Idaho, has gone largely unfulfilled for decades.
Idaho recently rejected $6M grant to support early childhood learning
Idaho still has no full day kindergarten program. Efforts to create pre-K, early childhood learning programs, broadly supported by thousands of Idahoans and endorsed by the state’s business community – Andrus pushed unsuccessfully another comprehensive initiative in the early 1990s – have been rejected repeatedly by the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature. As with kindergartens in the 1970s, Idaho today is one of the last holdouts against public pre-school programs.
And today’s arguments against expanded early learning eerily echo the arguments Cece Andrus, Roy Truby and other advocates heard over and over 50 years ago.
State Republican Party chairman Tom Luna, who previously served as state superintendent, voiced a common conservative refrain nearly a decade ago. “I have to wonder, as a conservative, where does it end?” Luna told Boise State Public Radio in 2013. “Is it really a cradle-to-grave type of a system that we’re going to end up with? That concerns me, because I do not support government at that level.”
When legislators killed recently the acceptance of a $6 million federal grant that would have been a start at additional early childhood learning, Republican Rep. Charlie Shepherd said the usually quiet part out loud, with perhaps an unintentional nod to Harriett Nelson. The federal grant, Shepard said, “makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.”
Shepard’s argument – the state shouldn’t do what parents could do – ignores reality, the kind of reality Judge Culet documented over three decades in his courtroom. As many as 65% of Idaho parents who would avail themselves of pre-K learning opportunities for their children are moms and dads who both hold down jobs outside the home.
Other legislators opposed the grant money fearing that giving pre-kindergarteners an early start on reading and other skills would lead to “indoctrination” of young minds through a focus on “social justice,” as if that were a subversive concept.
Yet, despite a vast amount of detailed analysis regarding the value of early childhood education – the pioneering work of Nobel laureate James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago stands out – the Idaho Legislature re-runs again and again – like Ozzie and Harriett in syndication – the old, tired and inaccurate arguments.
Heckman, an expert in understanding human potential, has not only documented the life cycle benefits for individual children of getting them ready to learn at the earliest possible age, but he has also shown the huge return on investment such efforts provide society, a reality Judge Culet confirms on an Idaho scale. The former judge remembers mentoring a fourth grader whose teachers noted had zero reading ability entering the fourth grade. But as the young man steadily acquired those skills, Culet said, “his behavior improved, his self-confidence improved.” He had finally reached the point where he was equipped to learn.
The late governor Andrus, a passionate believer in early childhood education, was fond of telling tight fisted Idaho legislators that there is always a cost involved in public policy choices. “You can pay now,” Andrus said by investing in education, particularly early childhood education, “or you can pay later,” when the cost will inevitably involve more incarceration, few employment opportunities and a diminishment of human potential.
For decades the Idaho Legislature has opted to pay later. It is almost certainly the most shortsighted policy choice the state could possibly make.
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