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Idaho Advocates Use Innovative Early Learning Collaboratives to Move the Needle on Early Care and Education

Idaho is one of only six states that does not fund pre-k, which makes advocacy for access to early care and education programs a significant challenge. It’s a landscape that requires determination and creativity.

The Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (Idaho AEYC) has led advocacy for investments in Idaho early childhood education for many years. Roughly seven years ago, Idaho AEYC took a step back and reflected on the status of early childhood across the state, including opportunities, setbacks, and what Idaho communities really want for their young children. “So instead of focusing solely on the legislature and a top-down approach, we decided to look at a bottom-up grassroots approach to serving students and families,” says Beth Oppenheimer, Executive Director, Idaho AEYC. 

In contrast to policymakers’ resistance to funding early care and education, teachers and families in the states were clamoring for it. “Idahoans really want support for children and families,” Oppenheimer says, “and kindergarten teachers were struggling because kids weren’t coming in ready.” A 2018 statewide poll revealed widespread support for state investments in early childhood education–76 percent among voters and 80 percent among parents of young children. 

So Idaho AEYC created the Early Learning Collaborative (ELC) initiative, partnering with 10 school districts and communities across the state. An ELC is a community-led initiative focused on strengthening early childhood education. These collaboratives unite various stakeholders, including educators, parents, community leaders, and business owners, to create a holistic approach to early learning, tailored to local needs. ELCs put early childhood education systems in the position to be a community interest and not a compartmentalized system that families and care providers have to confront on their own.

Idaho AEYC conducted a needs assessment, helped communities develop strategic plans, and supported them to bring local, community-based programs to life.

There are now 25 ELCs statewide, offering opportunities for more Idaho children to enroll in high-quality early childhood education programs. 

Ken Price, Director of Husky Pups Early Learning Center in Marsing School District, describes his small rural community’s success with serving students with developmental challenges from five rural school districts. “We know we’re helping families and saving money down the road since we are serving students with disabilities and supporting them to eventually join mainstream classrooms.” 

“The children in our community school get the support of the community and the parents trust the facility since it is part of the school and managed by school district staff,” Price says. 

In Emmett, Idaho, local leaders have formed an ELC that provides parent education as well as a preschool. There is a waitlist for enrollment. 

“The outreach of parents has doubled and tripled due to people telling how wonderful the program is,” says Amy Burr, Project Manager of the Early Learning Collaborative at Emmett School District. “It is a partnership that is not funded by the district, but we are using creative ways to partner, like utilizing space from the school district.” 

Amanda Weers, a collaborative parent and Community Liaison/Public Information Officer with Emmett School District describes the intentions and impact of the program. “I see the ELC and this whole effort as creating the village to raise all of our children to be the best and most successful they can be,” she said.  

While much of the ELC work is focused locally on building programs to serve more Idaho families, including providing resources and toolkits to interested communities, Idaho AEYC is also focused on grassroots advocacy to spread the word about local impact. Their focus is to build capacity statewide and eventually increase policy and funding support. 

“Our goal is to help these community leaders build a voice in their own community with their local and state policymakers,” Oppenheimer says. “We encourage early learning leaders to come to the table, share what is happening, and raise the voice of educators, parents, and communities across the state.”

“The collaboratives are really about grassroots,” says Lori Fascilla, Executive Director of Giraffe Laugh Early Learning Centers, part of the Garden City ELC. “We’re influencing policy from the ground up.

Oppenheimer encourages other states to follow Idaho’s example and continuously reassess strategies and impact. “My advice is that it is okay to take a step back and do things a little differently,” she says. “What works in Indiana might not work in Idaho and what works in Missouri might not work in Kansas. Find innovative, creative solutions that work for the community members within your state. We’re all unique and we’re all different, yet we share the goal of serving our communities well.”

Strategy in Action: Early Learning Collaboratives Are Also Expanding Access and Quality in Mississippi

Mississippi advocates have been using the collaborative strategy for years and have won state funding for the programs. Now the focus is on both access and quality. When the Mississippi State Board of Education voted in March 2023 to expand funding for three new Early Learning Collaboratives (ELC), Micayla Tatum knew the growth couldn’t happen effectively without monitoring the program’s quality. Tatum, Director of Early Childhood Policy at Mississippi First, says “We wanted to continue to ensure quality as we scale.”

Working as an active partner with the Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi First has always been very intentional about how and when they grow ELC programs. 

Tatum is encouraged by the focus of bringing child care into the ELCs, allowing more access to state funding and stabilizing early care in local communities. “Not only does getting into the ELC help child care providers stay open, but it spreads the focus on quality to other parts of the child care.” 

Mississippi First’s goal is to expand the number of children served by ECEs statewide to 50 percent of four-year-olds by 2030. They realize the importance of scaling intentionally as the program grows. 

“Collaboration is a contact sport,” said Tatum. “We know building relationships with local communities must come first. These relationships will ensure quality persists as programs grow.” 

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