For the week of February 24, 1999  thru March 2, 1999  

Foolish frugality deprives Head Start

With his state of the state message, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne generated a lot of hope that Idaho would do better by its kids.

The hope is beginning to congeal like cold gravy as the Legislature freezes the future for kids with its foolish frugality.

For five years in a row, the Legislature has refused to devote state funds to Head Start, a 34-year-old federal pre-school program for three- through six-year-olds that has a proven track record in improving the academic performance of poor kids. It’s likely the Legislature will deny funding once more.

This year, Head Start officials rolled back their request for state funding from $1.5 million to $500,000 in a bill scheduled to go before the Senate.

Despite the governor’s public enthusiasm for kids, he is opposing money for Head Start.

Kempthorne’s official stance is that Head Start costs too much at $5,500 per child, and comes too late. He prefers a program called Parents as Teachers, which doesn’t yet exist and relies heavily on volunteers.

Funding for Head Start in Idaho is so tight that just one in five eligible children gets to attend. A total of 15,000 children are eligible, but only the program enrolls just 3,000. Many of the rest are on waiting lists.

Blaine County has 30 kids in Head Start, with 15 three year olds on a waiting list.

The Legislature’s priorities are more than puzzling. They are cause for open-mouthed amazement.

Legislators stuck $32 million in tobacco settlement payments in the state’s mattress this year. No one can it touch it.

They went along with spending $538,000 to pay for the governor’s special handpicked team of advisors even though the advisors’ duties duplicate those of elected officials.

Legislators enthusiastically allocated $121,000 to open a state trade office in Washington, D.C., an amount that is sure to grow. The office is supposed to help Idaho businesses snag more lucrative overseas contracts.

The governor had no qualms about asking the state to spend $483,000 on security for himself and the state capitol.

Yet, when it comes to $1.5 million for some poor kids, the governor and the Legislature scramble to find reasons not to spend it. The governor says that at $5,500 per student, which also includes parent training, the price tag is too high.

This misplaced penny-pinching will cost everyone more money in the long run.

With kids, it’s pay now or pay later. Deprive Head Start and the state will most certainly pay more for welfare, more cops and more prisons in the future. One way or another we will pay. It’s only a matter of when and how much.

The Legislature and the governor should stop their weak excuses. They should fund Head Start.


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