In a tight vote on Tuesday, Idaho lawmakers voted to reject a $6 million federal grant that would have helped boost funding for day-care and early learning centers.

“Any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going,” said state Rep. Charlie Shephard (R), according to the Spokesman Review. “We are really hurting the family unit in the process.”

He later apologized, saying that he intended to compliment mothers “for being the best at early childhood development,” reported local news station KTVB.

Some of the most vocal opposition for the bill came from state Rep. Priscilla Giddings (R), who questioned whether the nonprofits who would receive money “encourage or support the teaching of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

If it had been approved, the grant would have gone to the state’s board of education, which would team up with the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children to help distribute the money for child care and early education. During debate, Giddings referred to the material from a catalogue for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has no oversight role over the Idaho branch.

She said the NAEYC is supporting a “social justice curriculum,” highlighting one particular line from the site that states “Whiteness, for example, confers privilege, as does being male,” according to the Spokesman Review. “I do not believe that you are privileged based on your gender or race,” Giddings said.

She was backed up by state Rep. Heather Scott (R), who argued the grant would open the doors for “indoctrinating our children at a younger level.”

Giddings, Scott and Shephard did not respond to requests for comment.

Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, was taken aback by the arguments.

After 10 years with the organization, Oppenheimer said she has “seen and heard it all” when it comes to child-care policy in Idaho. She was expecting the arguments against working moms.

“Every time we try to advance more efforts in regard to child care, licensing and regulations, we get, ‘The children should be at home with their mothers,’ ” Oppenheimer said.

But she was particularly taken aback at how lawmakers were using culture-war rhetoric to block a child-care grant.

Working families, as well as the state’s child-care industry, need that federal money, Oppenheimer said.

Idaho is one of a few states in the country that doesn’t provide any funding for child care or early learning. It was only in 2019 that the state, under Republican Gov. Brad Little, applied for federal money for preschools.

As a result, nearly half of Idahoans live in a child-care desert, Oppenheimer said, adding that many families make just enough money that they don’t qualify for low-income subsidy programs. Even before the pandemic, these families had to decide whether to pay for child care, food or rent. One report found that child-care issues resulted in an estimated $479 million loss annually for Idaho’s economy.

Similarly to the rest of the country, working mothers in Idaho are particularly strapped.

Government statistics show that in 2019, women in Idaho earned 74 cents to every man’s dollar. And while the state has lower unemployment rates than much of the country has seen during the pandemic, local news station KIVI-TV reports that the sectors hit hardest in Idaho are those that have suffered across the country: hospitality and leisure, as well as education and health services, both of which tend to disproportionately hire women.

While there were noteworthy job gains in February, the national unemployment rate remained over 6 percent, and women had yet to see the same gains as male workers. Since the pandemic hit, about 2.5 million women have left the workforce, compared to 1.5 million men.

In Idaho, as with the rest of the country, “Child-care providers are holding on by a thread,” Oppenheimer said.

Among them is Yvette Darney, who runs Darney’s Daycare and Learning Center and is a mother of four children. Her husband lost his job of 13 years near the start of the pandemic, and has struggled to find adequate work in the year since, she said.

Darney’s day care is still running, but has dropped off from caring for more than 40 kids every day to between 12 and 15. She says she has struggled to find staff for the day care because she can’t afford to pay as much as a job at Walmart or McDonald’s, she said.

“It’s pinching pennies. Sometimes there’s no pennies,” Darney said.

She is “usually not into politics,” she said, but traveled to the state Capitol this week to talk to lawmakers who rejected the money.

“They really do not fully understand what the grant is about,” she said.

The funding would have helped the Idaho AEYC expand from supporting day-care centers in 15 communities across the state to 20. This includes helping local providers get training on how to teach reading and other fundamental skills for young children.

Not only would providers be able to better support literacy for early learners, but they could share materials and guidance with families, Darney said.

She pointed to one recent delivery from a local learning center she had partnered up with. In the packet was a laminated flier with a set of different faces, each showing a different expression: surprise, anger, happiness. It was meant to teach children to recognize emotions.

Darney later came home to her own upset 4-year-old, and a father struggling to figure out what was wrong.

“She wasn’t vocalizing what she was feeling,” she said. But her husband took a flier and showed it to their daughter, asking her to identify which mood matched hers.

“That just changed the whole mood because she showed him that she was angry, and then they were able to talk about why she was angry,” she said.

Darney believes more families should have the opportunity to experience that support made possible by early learning programs.

“This really could help a lot of families.”

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