New poll shows strong support for preschools

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BOISE — The Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children released an independent poll Wednesday showing strong support for public preschool among both voters and parents of children younger than 5.

Executive director Beth Oppenheimer said the polls could help get a hearing for a bill to establish public pre-kindergarten education throughout the state.

Idaho is one of a handful of remaining states where preschool isn’t generally offered through the public education system, though some districts have taken the step of forming their own programs.

The poll was conducted by Moore Information using both landlines and cellphones. The firm has earned a B rating for accuracy from FiveThirtyEight.com.

Nearly two-thirds of parents of children under 5 polled said their children aren’t currently enrolled in a preschool program, while 57 percent said they plan to have their child attend. The top reasons parents cited were helping their children develop social skills, and getting them better prepared for kindergarten and future education. One in four parents who said their children weren’t enrolled said preschool was too expensive for them, and more than half of parents rated private preschool programs “totally unaffordable” for most families.

Overall public support for public pre-K education was overwhelming, with 69 percent of both voters and parents saying the state should be doing more, and opposition in the single digits. Asked whether the state should make more investments in public preschool programs, 76 percent of voters and 80 percent of parents expressed support, with 20 percent of voters and 18 percent of parents opposed.

Alyssa Townsend, who has taught kindergarten in Kuna for almost 15 years, said she regularly sees deficits among first-year students who haven’t had access to preschool.

“Too many of our children are starting too far behind,” she said. “… You can’t teach a 5-year-old 5-year-old skills when they don’t know 3- and 4-year-old skills.”

Often, she said, they don’t know how to hold a crayon, recognize their written name or use scissors. But more than that, many struggle because of a lack of socialization offered in preschool.

Oppenheimer said the problem is growing worse rather than improving.

“We’re at a critical tipping point,” she said.

Oppenheimer said throughout the state preschool education is limited both by its cost, about $7,000 per year, and by limited access in both rural and urban areas. In many rural areas services simply aren’t available, she said, while in many urban areas there are too few private preschool slots to meet demand.

Research indicates that disadvantage, in many cases, doesn’t go away over time, instead persisting and continuing to affect the lives of those who didn’t receive early childhood education and socialization, according to pediatrician Dr. Noreen Womack. Research indicates preschool is particularly effective for children who grow up in poverty, without much access to educational materials at home or in unstable homes, she said.

The most rapid period of brain development occurs during the preschool years, Womack said, and by the time children have entered kindergarten, brain development is 85 percent complete. Effective early education during those formative years can have lasting effects on the ability to read, the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment, and even the likelihood of incarceration later in life.

“This isn’t a Republican issue. This isn’t a Democratic issue. This is a future of Idaho issue,” Womack said.

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