Karen Mason 

It's more than the year of the child for activist Karen Mason. She's neck-deep in several grassroots efforts ensuring no child is left behind either because of insufficient education or a lack of proper developmental programs. Mason leads Idaho's Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC) and sits on the board of the new organization, Idaho Voices for Children, both of which lobby the state Legislature to raise awareness for more standards with children's issues.

BW: What's your history with child advocacy in Idaho?

KM: In about 1986, a group of dedicated and concerned people got together for a beer and said we should incorporate with the National Association for the Education of Young Children. There weren't any Idaho affiliates at that time, and we needed an organization behind us to become a louder voice for children in early education. It was first run from a box in somebody's garage ... We later shared an office with HeadStart and soon were able to pay for an executive director. I was hired as the director in 2002.

What does the IAEYC do?

We basically provide scholarships to people in childhood development courses at the university. The association [also] has several programs to help influence the standards of early childhood development.

What's wrong with the current standards?

There's a larger context to all of this, and this is only one person's view ... but in our state, the existing regulations for childcare providers--licensing and training--are minimal. There are minimal requirements for health and safety. Licensing standards don't apply for anyone who cares for six children or less. I don't think parents understand that.

What is Idaho Voices for Children?

It's an effort to organize advocacy around children in general. It's a part of a lot of groups' missions to push forward agendas through the Legislature.

Why should this be something lawmakers pay attention to?

By the time a child is 5, they've already established how they're going to learn--whether it's an adventure or a chore. In Idaho, kindergarten isn't mandatory. We need to look at the quality of these early influences, because they can impact our whole future, anywhere from spending money on remediation in schools to costs of juvenile justice, and mainly ensuring the state a quality future work force. Investment in early years will pay off, and this is information we need to get to our lawmakers, business partners and communities.

What's the biggest hurdle you face?

Funding. Right now these groups [the IAEYC and Idaho Voices] are dependent on just federal dollars. There's a huge competing need for those dwindling funds.

What are these organizations' long-term goals?

To have high-quality programs no matter what it costs. At this moment, no state general fund money goes to the improvement in childhood development. We need investment and commitment in all levels--federal, state and local governments, businesses and private foundations all need to be working together on this.

What do hope to achieve in Idaho Voices' inaugural year?

Basically to establish a legislative agenda based on members' priorities and to, at some point, have a lobbyist and a way to advocate for not just education, but anything that affects children's services.

To learn more, visit the Gold Room of the Capitol Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 1 p.m. There, lawmakers will present upcoming children's legislation.

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