In years when states enjoy more money than usual, legislators often propose ideas and programs that wouldn’t have received hearings otherwise.
One Idaho House member is counting on a looming budget gap to do the same thing in the 2011 legislative session.
Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, wants to completely overhaul the Gem State’s kindergarten system and integrate parents into the education process. The move, Thayn believes, would save more than $50 million and that’s a figure he is counting on for the plan to gain traction with state representatives and senators.
Idaho is facing what some believe will be a budget gap of $200 million to $400 million in fiscal year 2012.
The idea is to cut the amount school districts receive to pay for kindergarten instruction and give schools the flexibility to create their own programs. Thayn’s vision in his legislation is for schools to hire kindergarten coordinators, staffers assigned to provide support, curriculum, and technical expertise to parents of students. Parents would then take curriculum directives and teach them directly to their own children, thereby eliminating the need for kindergarten teachers.
The idea may be out-of-the-box thinking in terms of educational methods, but Thayn believes more budget cuts are on the way for all level of education and that his plan might alleviate some of the pressure on grades 1-12. “No one would be discussing it if we didn’t have a very serious budget problem,” Thayn acknowledged. “That’s really why I can bring it up. People will at least listen. I think anything is on the table this year.”
More than that, he notes, if the Legislature can cut $50 million from kindergarten, it won’t likely need to reduce funding by wide margins in other areas. “This will protect some of the programs parents really can’t provide,” said Thayn said.
The plan to slash kindergarten does make one large assumption: the idea that parents can provide instruction for their children. Opponents of the plan might argue that many families do not have the time for kindergarten-like instruction in the home.
Democratic Rep. Donna Pence of Gooding is one legislator who was concerns about the ability of parents to make time to teach their children the necessities of kindergarten. “I think parents are capable of doing it,” said Pence, “but it does require a lot of consistency.” Pence agrees with Thayn that parents are capable of educating their own children, but worries that working parents might not make time to provide instruction on a daily basis.
Thayn says the argument shows a misconception about what kindergarten students need in terms of instruction. “Group instruction for young kids might be good for the teacher,” he explains, “however what the children really need is one-on-one instruction.” Thayn believes 30 minutes of individual instruction by parents will meet or exceed the benefits of the three-and-a-half hours pupils typically spend in class.
Another former teacher, Republican Rep. Sharon Block of Twin Falls, declined to comment on the gist of Thayn’s bill, but warned that lawmakers need to see budget numbers prior to making drastic cuts to any programs. “The first thing we’ll need to do is look at the budget and see where we are before we make decisions like this,” Block said.
She wasn’t totally closed off to the idea of increasing parental involvement in the educational process, however. “I think it’s very important that parents are involved,” Block explained, adding that the most successful students are typically those with good support systems provided by families.
Other opponents of the idea might argue that the proposal would hurt students in broken or dysfunctional families in greater proportions than wealthy students. While he realizes that his parent-instruction might pose a problem for some, Thayn believes the majority of families would be able to deliver the educational instruction necessary for his plan to work. If districts believe they need to continue to provide some teacher-led classes at school to support families that cannot work in Thayn’s plan, schools will be given the ability to do so in the legislation.
“This doesn’t outlaw kindergarten in Idaho,” he explained.
The bill would also perform a second task, besides saving the state money: it would help define exactly what kindergarten students should know prior to entering the first grade. “I’ve been looking for a clear definition for that and I haven’t been able to find it,” Thayn said.
There are standards out there, however. Bellingham Public Schools in Washington state provides a long list of objectives students should meet before moving on the next school level. The list includes objectives in math, reading, and basic motor skills.
Still, Thayn says, parents are able to provide those services at no cost to the state. “I think it’s time to bring up the discussion of if kindergarten is helpful,” he said.
It’s likely Thayn will have that discussion in the next legislative session, which set to begin Jan. 10 at the Capitol in Boise.