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Idaho lawmakers debate major education legislation

A federal early childhood education grant, which would invest money into local communities for early education initiatives, passed the Senate by one vote on Monday.

BOISE, Idaho — As Idaho lawmakers aim to wrap up the 2021 legislative session, conversations about important education legislation remain prominent on the to-do list. 

A federal early childhood education grant, which would invest money into local communities for early education initiatives, passed the Senate by one vote on Monday.

While some lawmakers believe this grant will provide quality early education to children, some believe it will be used to promote social justice curriculum from national organizations for young students.

“The curriculum is all done by local control and by the families involved," Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking (D-Boise). "The families, the businesses, the communities, the parents, and the childcare providers. It’s all done locally."

The notion that the grant would fund social justice classes for young learners is simply untrue, according to Ward-Engelking. 

“There is no reason to have this boogeyman out there that’s not even viable," she said. "When you look at and think about a two-year-old, indoctrinating a two-year-old in something like that, that’s just crazy."

With the grant passing by one vote, there is a belief it will see a significant challenge passing the House. House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) expects a similar debate in the House that the Senate saw.

“I just heard here a few minutes ago that it did narrowly pass the Senate and I expect that if it passes in the House, it will be by a similarly small margin,” Bedke said.

Supporters of the bill are pushing to get it passed before the legislative session wraps up.

“I just feel sick that we're once again not addressing the needs of our children because of political reasons," Ward-Engelking said. "That should never be, children should come first."

The funding bill for optional full-day kindergarten was effectively killed for the year this week. The legislation is being held at the committee level over a disagreement on how federal money that would power the plan is being used, according to Ward-Engelking.

“We’ve worked on this for eight years and this was a time where everything turned out perfectly," she said. "We had a pathway forward and we had enough people on board to get it done. So, disappointing."

Earlier in the session, there was major support for the bill and infusing federal aid money into a plan to fund full-day kindergarten. Once lawmakers understood the federal money could actually go towards other education and literacy programs at the local level, there was a shift in how lawmakers believe it could best be used.

“The good news is there is nearly $750 million coming to all of the school districts in Idaho with very few strings attached when it comes to literacy," Bedke said. "Literacy in one district may look like all-day kindergarten and in another, it may look like something else."

Passing the state higher education budget is also a major task lawmakers have to accomplish. The House killed a budget last week because of concerns that too much taxpayer money would be funding social justice programs. 

Lawmakers want to ensure higher education funding is sticking to the fundamental cores of what colleges and universities need to accomplish, according to Bedke.

“The core mission is to turn out graduates that are prepared to enter the workforce and I think the farther we get away from that, the more problems we will have,” he said.

Some lawmakers feel the budget appropriation process is going too far.

“There is so many things out there that they are worried about and the reality is JFAC is an appropriation committee," Ward-Engelking said. "We do not set policy that is outside our lane. We are to set budgets based on needs, in this case the universities."

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