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Clark Corbin reports: A first-term lawmaker is taking on a long-standing and emotional educational battle: pre-kindergarten programs.

Rep. Hy Kloc wants the state to launch a three-year pre-K pilot program, with 55 percent of the funding coming from private sources.

Critics have said the state cannot assume and sustain funding for pre-K — and say preschoolers are best taught at home. So while Kloc is convinced pre-K is a solid educational investment, he’s also realistic about the political prospects.

“I fully believe it will pass — eventually,” Kloc, D-Boise, said in an interview this week.

Idaho is one of only 10 states that do not fund pre-K programs, as the Legislature has rejected numerous pre-K proposals. Pre-K supporters perhaps came closest in 2007. The Senate passed a strictly voluntary pre-K bill — districts could decide whether or not to offer locally funded programs, and parents could decide whether or not to enroll their children. But the bipartisan proposal never made it out of the House Education Committee.

The 2007 bill did not commit any state dollars, which may or may not be the case with Kloc’s proposal. Kloc said he hasn’t decided whether the state or districts should fund the public end of a pilot program. However, he is adamant that a commitment of private funding would have to come first, and that the preschool pilots would be voluntary.

Kloc is proposing a three-year pilot, so Idaho can gather its own evidence about the effectiveness of pre-K. Kloc says he is convinced by the “mountains” of national studies — which suggest that pre-K prepares children for school, academically and socially, and boosts students’ chances of success later in life. However, he also believes Idaho research will help build support for an Idaho pre-K program.

Like Kloc, LeAnn Simmons believes there is “plenty of evidence” supporting pre-K. But Simmons — the executive director of Idaho Voices for Children, a Boise-based nonprofit advocacy group — also sees the value of piloting programs in Idaho. Kloc has discussed his legislation with Simmons, but the group has taken no formal position.

Simmons likes the private-public partnership component of the bill. Even before the recession, when Idaho imposed some of the steepest per-pupil funding cuts in the nation, some lawmakers worried about “watering down” the state’s education funding, she said.

Historically, business groups have been among the state’s most vocal supporters of pre-K. But one lobbying group, Idaho Business for Education, is taking a wait-and-see approach to Kloc’s bill.

“I don’t think this is the time,” said IBE President and CEO Rod Gramer, who also has been briefed on the proposal.

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