Idaho child advocate prepared to take on national responsibilities

Advocating for early childhood education in Idaho can be a disheartening experience, as Beth Oppenheimer can attest.

“In a recent interview with EdNews, the former longtime executive director for the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children emphasized the resilience required in life. As she put it, ‘Some days, you fall on the ground, but you always find the strength to get back up.'”

During the March 2021 legislation session, politicians made the decision to turn down $18 million in federal funding, which would have provided support for early childhood education throughout the state over a span of three years. This decision serves as a tangible example for Oppenheimer, highlighting the impact and repercussions of rejecting such financial assistance.

She expressed her disbelief at the decision to reject $18 million of taxpayer money, emphasizing that it was unprecedented.

When the unthinkable happened, she collapsed to the ground, overcome with tears. However, she refused to surrender, expressing her determination to EdNews: “We will find a solution to this.”

And she did just that, revolutionizing the traditional approach by focusing on local initiatives instead of statewide ones. Presently, the AEYC’s early learning collaboratives have expanded to encompass 25 communities, each devising innovative methods to provide accessible and top-notch early education options.

Oppenheimer, a prominent member of the Boise School District board, played a crucial role in advocating for pre-K-12 concerns within one of Idaho’s largest school districts.

Kevin Bailey, the incoming board president of AEYC, describes her as a tireless advocate for children from infancy through their educational journey.

Monday is the final day of Oppenheimer’s tenure in Idaho education. She is scheduled to tender her official resignation from the Boise School Board at the regular meeting on Monday evening, and her last day as the head of AEYC was on Friday.

After completing her tenure at the Department of Education, Karen Cator has now joined the XQ Institute in Washington, D.C. as the head of policy and research. This organization, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, is dedicated to reimagining the high school experience to ensure that all students are prepared for success in college, career, and real life.

Navigating education in Idaho has prepared her for anything, as she confidently states, “If you can navigate education here in Idaho, you can do it anywhere.”

Now it’ll be up to others to “keep the fire burning”

When Oppenheimer assumed the role of executive director for AEYC in 2010, the concept of pre-K education was considered taboo in Idaho. However, since then, there has been a significant shift in the state’s perspective on early learning.

“You couldn’t even discuss early childhood. Preschool was definitely out of the question,” she remarked.

Oppenheimer recalls her conversation with former Governor Butch Otter regarding investments in early childhood. When she brought up the topic, Otter responded by saying, “We have to fix K-12 first.”

State leaders, legislators, and various stakeholders are increasingly embracing the message that AEYC has long advocated for: high-quality early education has a lasting, positive impact on children and plays a vital role in promoting kindergarten readiness and early literacy.

In 2022, Governor Brad Little advocated for a $47 million allocation towards early literacy, enabling certain districts to utilize the funds to support the implementation of full-day kindergarten programs.

“At the time, he emphasized the importance of providing students with a strong start, stating that our investments in education will have a greater impact. He acknowledged that it is not only a constitutional obligation but also a moral obligation.”

Oppenheimer expressed his pride in the fact that they were able to change the direction of the conversation. He acknowledged that this achievement took a significant amount of time.

Teamwork played a crucial role in achieving this success.

According to Rod Gramer, the president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, the top priority for business leaders is early education, surpassing other policy issues by a significant margin. Gramer emphasized that early education plays a crucial role in developing a highly educated workforce and also contributes to the recruitment efforts of businesses. Prospective employees tend to prioritize states with a strong and high-quality education system that starts from an early age.

“Our business leaders understand the importance of equipping children for the future rather than fixing the problems that arise later,” he expressed.

As pre-K education gained momentum, Gramer and Oppenheimer embarked on an initiative to expand opportunities for young children in Mississippi through an early learning collaborative model. Oppenheimer sought federal funding of $18 million for this concept, which unfortunately got rejected.

However, this dark day turned out to be a defining and unforgettable moment in my long career.

Oppenheimer changed her approach to focus on local leaders and community members who were passionate about early care and education. Instead of relying on politicians, she empowered superintendents, mayors, teachers, parents, and others to take the lead in advocating for these important initiatives at the grassroots level.

Today, the network has expanded to include 25 communities, ranging from American Falls to Marsing to Kendrick-Juliaetta. In each of these communities, partnerships are being formed to provide affordable and comprehensive early learning opportunities to families who may not have access to them otherwise.

According to Oppenheimer, there has been significant progress in engaging more children in early learning activities throughout the state. This positive trend is continuously growing and demonstrates the great strides being made in this area.

According to Gramer, the work that she has accomplished is setting the foundation for the future. He believes that her legacy will be defined by her efforts beyond the legislature to ensure the continued progress of early education.

Progress has been slow, as obstacles persist

Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s recent investigations into AEYC, other nonprofits, and some school districts have raised concerns about the inappropriate use of COVID-19 relief funds for children under 5. This has been viewed as a setback in the shift towards more positive attitudes regarding early education. The case, described by Oppenheimer as “mind-boggling,” highlights the ongoing challenges faced in this field.

A proposal for a new state office of early childhood, which would coordinate public and private services for children 5 and younger, made progress by advancing out of the House Education Committee last month. However, it appears to have hit a roadblock and is unlikely to be heard on the House Floor this session.

Ron Nate, the president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, argued that supporting early childhood education goes against the constitution and would lead us towards the ideals of the “Communist Manifesto.”

Rep. Dale Hawkins, a Republican from Fernwood, concurred that providing such services is not the responsibility of the state.

For years, Idaho lawmakers have consistently blocked bills aimed at providing funding for early childhood education.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for those of us who strongly believe in the power of early education that we haven’t seen any progress on this issue at the Legislature,” Gramer expressed.

Idaho stands out among the few states that do not allocate resources for preschool education. Oppenheimer believes that this lack of investment is due to legislators being disconnected from the desires and needs of their communities. She hopes that lawmakers will eventually realize the tangible effects of this oversight on their own constituents and take action accordingly.

She was able to ‘build strong coalitions’ against the odds as a trustee

In addition to her role at AEYC, Oppenheimer has been a trustee for Boise Schools since 2016. She has been involved in making difficult decisions during the pandemic, addressing the increase in mental health issues, and dealing with challenges such as declining enrollment and staff reductions.

She has been instrumental in expanding the district’s pre-K program and implementing full-day kindergarten. Additionally, she initiated a student advisory board to prioritize student voices. She later collaborated with Shiva Rhajbandari, who made history by joining the board during his senior year at Boise High.

Coby Dennis, superintendent of the Boise School District, praised Oppenheimer’s impressive skill in forming strong alliances among individuals and organizations with diverse backgrounds. He highlighted her extensive knowledge at both the state and national levels, along with her ability to identify common ground among people. Dennis emphasized that Oppenheimer’s expertise greatly benefited their district, whether it involved finding effective ways to enhance K-3 literacy or ensuring every child in Boise had access to full-day kindergarten.

Oppenheimer has personally witnessed the significant changes occurring as school boards have gained immense attention and interest, resulting in a notable increase in the number of fiercely contested trustee races.

According to her, it’s wonderful to see people getting involved in supporting education, as long as their intentions are to genuinely support and not undermine it. It’s important for them to realize that taking on the responsibility of overseeing a school district comes with a lot of learning opportunities.

A new chapter for Oppenheimer: reimagining high schools

Oppenheimer was celebrated by supporters from across the state as a prominent catalyst for change in Idaho’s education system.

According to Gramer, losing her will be a significant setback. He emphasized the importance of taking up the responsibility and ensuring that the issue continues to receive attention.

Jackie Yarbrough, the senior program officer for the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health, has praised Oppenheimer for her unwavering dedication to the young children of Idaho. Over the course of their decade-long partnership with AEYC, the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health has witnessed the transformative impact of Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking work, which has significantly improved early education opportunities in Idaho.

Boise trustees will be unveiling their course of action for selecting a new trustee during their upcoming regular meeting on Monday night. Additionally, the AEYC board is collaborating with a reputable national search firm to facilitate the search for a replacement. This thorough process is expected to span over a few months.

President-Elect Kevin Bailey expressed his admiration for Oppenheimer’s unparalleled legacy. He referred to her as the state’s top leader and expert in early childhood and child care opportunities. Bailey acknowledged the challenge of finding a suitable replacement for Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer’s main aim has always been clear: to assist children and families.

Oppenheimer remains undeterred in her pursuit of education, even in the face of challenges in Idaho. Relocating is not an option for her, as she intends to continue advocating for education, albeit on a larger platform.

As she takes on her new position, her primary objective will be to reimagine the high school experience, placing a strong emphasis on graduate profiles and project-based learning.

Idaho is currently one of three pilot states investigating XQ Institute’s math badging program. The program seeks to invigorate high school mathematics and involve a greater number of students in challenging and diverse learning experiences in junior- and senior-level courses.

“I’m not running away,” stated Oppenheimer firmly. “Rather, I am sprinting towards a fresh opportunity, an exciting challenge, and a renewed sense of purpose.”

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