Idaho won't compete for preschool money

Idaho won't compete for preschool money
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The state has decided it will not apply for a multi-million dollar education grant from the federal government aimed at increasing access to early learning programs for low-income and disadvantaged children.

States had a Wednesday deadline to apply for up to $50 million to improve preschool education programs during the latest round of the U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" contest. The state Department of Education confirmed that Idaho has decided to skip the process.

The agency led by public schools chief Tom Luna recommended last month that Idaho abandon efforts to compete for the money, citing concerns about the state expanding its current public education system with one-time funding.

"Nothing has changed," said department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. "Our biggest concern is still the one-time money and what happens after it goes away."

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's office notified the U.S. Department of Education in July that the state intended to apply for the Early Learning Challenge. Idaho was among a handful of states that do not fund a statewide prekindergarten program but had still planned to compete for the money.

One of the goals of the grant program was to help states that have traditionally not funded early education programs launch those efforts. But among the top concerns for Idaho's Department of Education was that state lawmakers have not yet put a prekindergarten policy in place.

The agency also had reservations about taking on a new program while carrying out other initiatives such as Luna's "Students Come First" plan, which includes a series of substantial changes for public schools that include in laptops for high school students while also making online learning a requirement.

"Anytime somebody approaches us with a grant opportunity or a new project, we have to decide whether we have the capacity to do the work. And while that was not the greatest concern, it was a concern," McGrath said.

The U.S. Education Department announced the Early Learning Challenge in May, saying the program aims to do away with an uncoordinated system of preschool programs that often leave the poorest children without options and allow bad schools to go unchecked.

Education advocates said the federal focus on early learning is critical to making quality preschool and prekindergarten to all children. The program also represents the third round of the federal government's "Race to the Top" competition, which doled out nearly $4 billion to states last year.

Idaho was among states shut out during the first round of the federal grant competition.