Welcome to Idaho, the preschool fool

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Most of us can agree that in an ideal home, children are fully prepared to attend school and will keep up with their peers every step of the way.

Most of us can probably also agree that many homes aren’t ideal.

The 2017 Kids Count Report, produced every three years by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, dropped a bombshell on Idaho last week — or rather, helped expose a bombshell that’s frantically ticking.

The report, supported by other statewide data, shows Idaho is dead last in the nation in a key education category. Here, only 30 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend any kind of formal preschool program. A preponderance of research is documenting the fact that kids who do not perform at grade level early on tend to stay behind for the rest of their education. These are the same kids who drop out of school or fail to “go on” after high school, even to earn a technical certificate, which means they’re far more likely to be underemployed or on welfare somewhere not far down the line.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Idaho has one of the lowest “go on” rates in the nation. You don’t need to be an A student to discern there’s a disconnect somewhere in the educational chain, where many of our kids are falling behind and never catching up. The Kids Count Report and other data strongly suggest the disconnect exists before Idaho kids even start kindergarten. So why is that?

Religious beliefs are one factor, but we think a small one. Some stalwart citizens oppose taxpayer investment in pre-kindergarten education because their beliefs point toward that being the family’s responsibility — quite often falling on the mother’s shoulders — with some level of spiritual support from the church.

Another factor is an understandable antagonism toward deadbeat parents. Why should hard-working, law-abiding couples be responsible for the offspring of drug-addled, lazy entitlement abusers anyway, they might argue?

The answer: Money — lack of it.

The Kids Count Report shows well over half (56.8 percent) of Kootenai County children already have their parents working. In these homes there simply isn’t time to invest in substantial preschool programs.

The Kids Count Report and United Way of Kootenai County data also show that in Kootenai County, somewhere around one-third of all families live in poverty or just above the poverty line. In Coeur d’Alene that mark of desperation describes 44 percent of homes. There isn’t enough money to pay for preschool programs for these kids, even if they’re in two-parent, taxpaying, church-going households.

This is no longer a mystery. There’s ample evidence that when our kids read, write and do arithmetic at grade level throughout their education, the likelihood of earning livable wages and being valuable members of a community skyrockets. When they fall behind they not only don’t catch up, but the likelihood of their becoming dependent on welfare or spending time in prison skyrockets.

If Idaho lawmakers can’t find the compassion to fix this problem with public funding for preschool education or, at minimum, full-time kindergarten, maybe they can justify the investment fiscally. We can pay a little now for educational success and eventual prosperity, or pay much more later for longer welfare lines and bigger jails.

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