BOISE — A seemingly innocuous early childhood bill to approve receiving a federal grant became the center of a heated, nearly two-hour debate in the House on Tuesday. The vote, one of the closest yet this Legislative session, meant Idaho will not be able to access nearly $6 million in funds targeted to support early learning.
Supporters of the bill said some of the state’s more conservative lawmakers sewed confusion about the grant’s purpose with false statements.
In January, the Office of the State Board of Education received a $5,980,500 federal grant given under the Trump administration to “support the development of Idaho’s early childhood care and education system” for children from birth to age 5. The Idaho State Board of Education would partner with a nonprofit, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children “to ensure the grant is administered to meet the objectives identified” in a 2020 needs assessment.
HB 226 sought approval of the grant so the state could access the funds. The grant is a renewal of a previous one received by the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. Unlike the first grant, this one would be given to the State Board of Education rather than directly to the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.
The association would assist in distributing the money to existing local child care and child education groups. The funding would support such things as children’s library programs, kindergarten readiness programs, classes teaching adults about early literacy, support for homeschooling families and programs that help parents find child care.
”A study was conducted, and essentially they said that 50% of Idaho is in an early childhood education desert. So people just don’t have access to child care in all parts of the state,” said bill sponsor Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene.
Initially, it seemed the bill would receive easy House approval due to outside support of HB 226. Both of Idaho’s U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch expressed strong support for it. The Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry and US Chamber of Commerce also urged approval of the bill.
”For Idaho employers, the lack of childcare options costs us $248 million in turnover and $166 million in absenteeism ANNUALLY,” Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, stated in an email to representatives.
Yet many representatives spoke passionately against it. Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, was the first to hold the floor following opening statements. She began by asking a question that set the tone for the rest of debate.
“Good gentleman, are you aware if this nonprofit has provided any support or if they would encourage or support the teaching of the pledge of allegiance?” she asked Amador.
Giddings feared that this money would be used to push lessons that did not align with conservative values. She was particularly concerned with the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children partnership. The nonprofit is an affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Giddings said she looked through the national branch’s catalog. She was alarmed to read a line stating “whiteness, for example, confers privilege, as does being male” and that the organization supports a “social justice curriculum.”
“I do not believe that you are privileged based on your gender or your race,” Giddings said.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said the association would indoctrinate children with its own beliefs regarding “anti-bias education.”
“We’re indoctrinating our children at a younger level here. … There’s no escaping it when the book’s already written, the curriculum’s is already written, there’s social justice in it,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said.
Giddings said using federal money means the state wouldn’t have control over the content of the education. She also believed that partnering with a nonprofit meant there would be no way to know how the money was being used.
”This $6 million goes to the state board of education. And then they set up a contract with whoever they want to. In this case, they’ve identified, obviously, this particular organization because they’ve been utilizing their services for the past year and this organization makes a lot of sense to fulfill those needs. So don’t think we’re giving $6 million straightaway to an organization with no strings attached,” Amador said.
Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, said the Idaho association is not governed by nor does it give money to the national association. Oppenheimer pointed out that the two are listed as separate nonprofits. The national organization does provide some resources to the Idaho one. The Idaho AEYC does not teach children directly. The association has never received a complaint from an Idaho parent concerning their children’s child care or education, according to Oppenheimer.
”There were a lot of things said that were simply not true. … It was turned into something that has nothing to do with the grant,” Oppenheimer told the Post Register. “Idaho AEYC does not dictate curriculum. We do not tell local collaboratives what to teach and what not to teach. We are not engaged in teaching children transgenderism or anything of the kind. We are fully transparent with all of the funding that we’ve ever received.”
Some representatives expressed the belief that home, rather than in childcare or preschool, was the best place for young children. Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, described overhearing a group of women discussing mothers “forced to remain home” to care for their children.
“You mean mothers raising their children?” Ehardt said upon hearing this. “Have we gotten to the point that it is so denigrating and such a hardship for a mother that decides to remain home with their children that we have to disparage that?”
Oppenheimer said 65% of children under the age of 8 have both parents in the workforce.
”We don’t all have the luxury of having one parent stay at home,” Oppenheimer said.
After nearly two hours of debate during the morning floor session, the final vote was a close one. Once all votes were in, it looked like it was going to be a tie: 35-35. Then Rep. John McCrostie, switched from in favor of the bill to opposed. McCrostie, D-Garden City, requested a second vote on the bill. Only those who voted in the prevailing party, meaning the side with the most votes, can request a second vote. When McCrostie switched, he became a member of the prevailing party.
During the afternoon session, the House voted 37-31 against a second vote, meaning the bill has failed and Idaho will not receive the grant.