By Anna K. Miller and Ronald Nate, Ph.D.
Thanks to the anti-corruption efforts of Sen. Glenneda Zuiderveld, news surfaced this week about how unaccountable administrators in state agencies are seeking to meddle in the upbringing of our state’s youngest children by misusing taxpayer funds. The Idaho Freedom Foundation traced the steps and missteps of Idaho government officials.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) appears to have violated state law by distributing grants to pre-K providers under a program intended to serve only school-aged children.
The Legislature first awarded the federal funds under the Community Partner Grant Program in 2021, and it set very clear parameters. The Legislature’s appropriation mandated, “Grants shall be used for serving school-aged participants ages 5 through 13 years.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation has obtained public records showing how administrators in the IDHW have awarded these grants to pre-K groups in the state, including the early education non-profit Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC) and its partners.
In 2021, the Legislature narrowly rejected a $6 million federal grant to the IAEYC because the group promotes the sexualization of children and critical race theory. It was a high-profile and hotly contested debate. Rep. Priscilla Giddings exposed the woke agenda of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the questionable books and materials in the pre-K curriculum posted on the IAEYC website. The Legislature narrowly defeated the grant proposal (H226) by a vote of 34-36 in the House.
Apparently, legislators’ wishes were ignored by state agencies.
Public records show that in grant applications, the IDHW required recipients to “Describe how are you [sic] aligned with the E.C.C.E. (Early Childhood Care & Education) Strategic Plan.” The grants were intended to serve children between the ages of five and 13, yet the IDHW asked potential grantees about “early childhood,” defined as ages birth to five.
Each grant application also asks, “Does your program serve children from 5 to 13 years old?” That’s because state law requires it.
Disregarding legislative intent, the IDHW awarded the grants to entities providing pre-K programming.
The IAEYC received at least $4.5 million in grants. In one application to establish an “early learning collaborative,” a statewide pre-K project of the IAEYC, the organization states that it intends to serve children ages “birth to eight,” but in all of its other public documentation at the state and local level, the program is described as serving “ages birth to five.”
Ericka Rupp, the former IDHW administrator of the Community Partner Grant program, is close personal friends with Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the IAEYC. Rupp also served as the board chair of United Way during this time, and it’s worth noting that there are five separate United Way programs that received these funds. This could potentially violate state conflict of interest laws. United Way and Rupp did not respond for comment at the time of publishing.
Idaho Ed News reported about how the Legislature’s defeat of H226 affected IAEYC and Director Beth Oppenheimer:
“Beth Oppenheimer can point without hesitation to the worst day of her career as executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children: March 2, 2021.
“‘I fell to the ground, sobbing from the news,’ she said.
“House Republicans killed a bill to allow Oppenheimer’s nonprofit to oversee nearly $6 million in federal grants to support and expand preschool education efforts across Idaho.”
It appears that the IDHW and Ericka Rupp, the administrator of the Community Partner Grant Program, found a way to help Rupp’s friend by directing funds to some of the IAEYC programs anyway.
Many of the grant awards went to entities establishing “early learning collaboratives,” which are a project of the IAEYC.
For example, the application of Get Ready to Learn, Kuna! states the group will use the funds to “scale up our preschool program by opening a 3-4 year old class” and discusses day care initiatives. The application makes explicit that the program is for children ages three to five and is part of the IAEYC collaboratives. The group was awarded $60K.
Both Kendrick School District and Murtaugh School District applied on behalf of their Early Learning Collaboratives, which are part of the IAEYC. Both entities received $60K.
Basin Early Childhood Collaborative, which was awarded $60K, stated in its grant application it would serve children ages birth through five.
One application was titled “Ready! for Kindergarten.” This is a project of the IAEYC that obviously would not serve “school aged children.”
Another application for the IAEYC “Child and Family Connections” is vague about the ages it will serve. But the program website is focused on pre-K and daycares.
When asked why IAEYC applied for funds intended for school-aged children, Beth Oppenheimer said, “While Idaho AEYC does not provide direct service to children, our organization supports those who work with and cares [sic] for children birth through age 8.”
Examples of grants awarded for pre-K programming abound. For instance, 2C Kids Succeed received $750K “to address early childhood trauma and promote resilience.” The Giraffe Laugh received $60K to target children “who would not have other options for preschool the year before they attend kindergarten.” The Marsing School District, which received $35K, goes into detail in its grant application about “high quality preschool” and how it plans to hire an aide and expand the hours for its pre-K teacher.
This issue was brought to the attention of several IDHW officials, including Director Dave Jeppeson, Deputy Director Jennifer Palagi, and Board Member Sara Stover. In an email, Palagi claimed that the IDHW conducted an internal review and found that the program aligned with legislative intent. Palagi did not provide any further information or evidence to substantiate the claim.
The approval of these applications violates state law. Legislators were clear that these funds could not be used for Pre-K programs. The IDHW did it anyway.
Sen. Glenneda Zuiderveld discovered the violations and adamantly affirmed, “I was sent to Boise to not only introduce bills and protect our Constitutional Republic and state sovereignty, but I was also sent here to expose corruption whenever discovered as it states in the code of ethics public law 96-603.”
She continued, “It’s reprehensible how IDHW purposely ignored the representatives of the people taking it upon itself to illegally fund some of these woke pre-K agendas.”
Former Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who helped expose and defeat the problematic, agenda-driven federal grants, said: “Executive branch bureaucrats are again subverting the will of the people — which was expressed through the legislative process — in order to push their radical left agenda on innocent children. This is yet another example of why people have lost trust in the government.”
The Legislature should immediately rescind spending authority for the grant program, and the attorney general should launch a thorough investigation into the full extent of this misuse of public funds.
Lawmakers were right to guard against the further subsidization of early childhood education and the influence of special interest groups over the lives of our youngest children. State law must be enforced, and administrators must be held accountable for violating it.