Kids Choice Child Care Center

A handful of pre-K students interact during class at Kids Choice Child Care Center and Preschool, Monday, August 3, 2020.

BOISE — From a kindergarten-readiness push in Kuna to a business-led effort to regain lost child-care capacity in Valley County to an immensely popular “Read-Talk-Play Every Day” initiative in American Falls, members of community collaboratives across Idaho came together Monday to talk about the work they’re doing to help local families with young children, including a $6 million federal grant that’s awaiting a second vote in the Idaho Legislature.

“I’ve read some of the myths, the misunderstandings about this grant,” said Wendy Johnson, Kuna School District superintendent. “And I just have to say that the grant has helped local communities, in my case the Kuna School District, very local communities, come together.”

Opponents in the Idaho House narrowly killed the bill granting approval for spending the federal grant on March 2, after opponents claimed it would be a tool to impose a social-justice indoctrination program on Idaho’s youngest children — though the grant leaves all curriculum decisions up to local collaboratives. It has strong backing from Idaho’s business community and the state’s two GOP U.S. senators; the funding was authorized by former President Trump.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation has been campaigning against the grant, claiming it’s part of a national push to teach that “babies are racist” and to “program woke-ism into children.”

“I certainly think they’re trying to draw upon certain individuals’ fears that we’re trying to do something nefarious with our children,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s lead sponsor. “That’s not at all the focus of this grant. This grant is to help children get ready for kindergarten, it’s to help families, it’s to help communities, it’s to help businesses in Idaho.”

Amador noted that the representatives of Idaho collaboratives who described their work on Monday never mentioned “social justice theory” or “critical race theory.” “But what I did hear was preparing to be effective readers, kindergarten preparedness, working with families, working with communities. … That’s the real focus of the grant.”

Kuna’s collaborative, one of 15 around the state so far, is focused on getting kids ready for kindergarten, after the district saw a concerning drop in student reading readiness scores. Already, it’s identified more quality preschool seats available for underserved populations in the community. “It’s been a labor of educators coming together, community members coming together, we have grandmas and grandpas on our committee and we have moms and dads,” Johnson said.

Andrew Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council in McCall, said his region started a new collaborative last year because it had lost two child care centers, “which has had a huge effect on our local economy and our local families.”

Businesses were reporting they were losing employees because they couldn’t find child care. “We’re currently deficient by about 400 spaces in a very small region, which is really impactful,” Mentzer said. “And the effort is 100% locally built and locally delivered.”

The project is focused on supporting new child care providers in the area with career and technical training and other resources to help them succeed. Its new program manager, who just came on board last week, has close ties to local churches, child care providers and school districts. “It’s really, at the end of the day, a grass-roots community effort,” Mentzer said.

He added, “And the suggestion by the Idaho Freedom Foundation that we’re going to indoctrinate certain realities, some agenda externally, is completely false.”

Amador said a Freedom Foundation researcher attacked something it called the “Early Learning Institute” that it identified as a national group with motives it questioned, but the grant has nothing to do with that organization; there are numerous organizations with that name. In the case of the grant program, Early Learning Institute is the name for an initiative developed as part of the collaborative project in Idaho that Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome, co-sponsor of the legislation, said is “a series of educational awareness opportunities that are offered forward to parents, grandparents, librarians, child care providers and other interested partners.”

So far, it’s offered three online webinars on children’s developmental milestones, understanding trauma and its impact on early learning, and promoting early literacy.

Lickley said, “We really have an eye toward making our children ready for school and literate.”

Several of the collaboratives started locally long before the grant came into play. In American Falls, the local school superintendent, worried that families with young children weren’t spending enough quality time together, launched the “Read-Talk-Play Every Day” initiative about six years ago. Tenille Call, a teacher and the early-learning coordinator for the schools, said it was designed “to promote the importance of parents spending time reading to their children, talking to their children, and connecting with their children by playing with their children every day.”

Everything from banners downtown to T-shirts worn every Wednesday by employees of local businesses promotes the push, which has “widespread community support,” Call said. “Before our program began, 19.7% of incoming kindergartners were scoring proficient on the fall Idaho Reading Indicator.” In 2019, the project expanded when it became part of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children’s “Preschool the Idaho Way” local collaborative project, which provided funding and support to “help children and families have access to high-quality programs that aligned with community values and met the educational needs of parents and families in those communities,” Call said.

Last fall, the American Falls collaborative hosted “ready for kindergarten” classes for local families that were attended by more than 100 parents. “We’ve been able to maintain our community values and philosophies by managing our own grant funds locally and selecting our own curriculum,” she said.

In tiny Kendrick-Juliaetta in north-central Idaho, local kindergarten teacher Angie Tweit launched her local collaborative with informal talks around her dining-room table about why the community had no preschool and just two in-home day care providers. “This was four or five years ago,” Tweit said. “It came from the parents and the grandparents and the business owners.”

Now, the elementary school offers a free program for 4-year-olds, and the group is working to encourage more local child-care options.

Lickley said, “We’ve got 170,000 working parents across the state of Idaho with children under age 6. That’s just shy of 10% of our entire population. We really intend to engage our families, our parents, our businesses, our early childhood educators, our faith-based organizations, schools and policy makers like myself and Rep. Amador who really intend to make our children ready for school and literate.”

Amador said he hoped the messages from the Idaho collaborative participants would “provide really a reality check on what’s happening related to this grant.”

He successfully proposed a new version of the legislation accepting the grant, now SB 1193, and it cleared the Legislature’s joint budget committee March 16 on an 18-2 vote. The new version includes extensive “intent language,” which has the force of law, noting that no curriculum may be dictated to local collaboratives, requiring broad community involvement, and requiring reporting.

Beyond the intent language, there’s just one other change: Amador made a personal donation to increase the amount by $100. “I said that I believe in this grant enough that I’m going to give $100 out of my own pocket in a dedicated fund to them,” said Amador, who is the father of two young children.

“I think there was a lot of misperceptions and quite honestly misleading statements about the purpose and intent and some of the goals and objectives and outcomes of the grant,” he said. “So I do believe there will be the votes at the end of the day for this new bill.”

Lawmakers reconvene on Tuesday; the new bill could come up for votes as soon as this week.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.