BOISE -- Did you know Idaho is one of six states that doesn't have state-funded preschool?
School readiness is something early education advocates have been fighting for for years at the Statehouse. On Wednesday, several people stood up in front of both the House Education and Senate Education committees to testify about why they believe it is crucial for Idaho's future.
The stakeholders who spoke wanted to express how important the issue is from a variety of voices; their common goal is to make sure every child in Idaho is on an even playing field when they enter school, and has an equal opportunity for success in life.
"The need for quality early learning has never been greater," Executive Director of Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC) Beth Oppenheimer said to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday afternoon.
"In fact, it gives us the best return on investment of almost any education dollar," President of Idaho Business for Education Rod Gramer told KTVB.
Extensive testimony was made by several knowledgeable speakers, from superintendents to business leaders.
"On that first day of kindergarten you can tell immediately which students went to preschool and which students did not," Basin School District Superintendent John McFarlane told the committee.
"The key is to ensure every student has an equal opportunity to succeed when they enter kindergarten," Idaho Business for Education member Park Price said.
Research presented at the hearing showed 49 percent of all incoming kindergartners in Idaho weren't able to correctly identify letters, numbers or colors on the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI).
"As the expectations of kindergartens have continued to increase, I have seen a decline in the basic abilities of the students arriving into my room," kindergarten teacher at Reed Elementary School in Kuna, Alyssa Townsend, said.
One theme throughout the hearing: the amount of long-term benefits that early education has.
"The longer goals of graduation rates, go-on rates, and, most importantly, lifetime outcomes all hinged to this issue," Idaho Lt. Governor Brad Little told the committee.
Professors from Brigham Young University and retired, long-time Third District Judge Gregory Cutlet presented research showing how children without supportive environments or who are not ready to learn are at greater risk for dropping out of high school, substance abuse, and criminal behavior.
"They become a burden on society rather than contributors," Dr. Dean Cloward added.
But the hearing didn't go without question and skepticism from state senators. For decades, people have argued whether there are any long-term impacts of preschool, and if it's worth the money.
"Are kids not ready or are we asking too much of them before they are before we can actually expect them to be ready?" Sen. Lori Den Hartog (R-Meridian) asked.
"There is a number of legislators that believe the private sector can do it much better than the public sector at a much lesser cost," Sen. Bob Nonini (R- Coeur d'Alene) asked.
Gramer says a major problem with school-readiness in Idaho lies in children who come from disadvantaged, poorer families - families who can't afford pre-school. Gramer says they are planning to introduce legislation that serves those kids and creates a funding partnership between the state of Idaho and local communities (private donations, grants, etc.).
"If we don't solve this problem, it is only going to get worse," Gramer told KTVB. "It's not going to get better. We really need the state to help us solve this problem."
Advocates have been trying to push legislation for years, but tell KTVB they won't put this bill forward unless they can actually get some traction on it.