Publicly funded preschool is again up for debate in the state Legislature. Gov. Steve Bullock is pushing for more than $20 million to fund optional public pre-k for 4-year-olds. Bullock is also asking for $8 million to pay for preschool for Head Start programs and private providers.
This is the last chance for Bullock to pass one of the top priorities of his administration before he terms out of office in 2020.
Although the two-term Democrat claimed a victory in the 2017 session with $6 million going to a pilot preschool program, Montana remains one of about half a dozen states in the country without an established state-funded program.
Bullock highlighted his policy goal in his 2019 State of the State address.
“Let's provide kids and families in rural and urban areas access to high quality, voluntary, affordable options. The future leaders of our state deserve no less.”
Bullock’s latest proposal would allow school districts to offer kids 4-years-old enrollment in half-time preschool. The administration's budget and program planning office assumes that if this program was enacted, about 40 percent of eligible kids in Montana would enter the program, during its first year. That amounts to more than 2,000 children.
“We are never going to get to a place where Montana has a holistic, quality education system until we have real public preschool,” says Rep. Casey Schreiner, the Democratic Minority Leader from Great Falls. He’s carrying the governor’s education funding bill the House, which includes the preschool program.
“I think it’s a popular notion around Montana," says Schreiner. "I think most Montanans know it's common sense for us to do this. I just think for whatever reason this body has not pulled the trigger. I have a lot of faith this session that we’re going to pull this off.”
While there is some bipartisan support to provide state funding for preschool, Republicans have their own plan to get that done.
Rep. Eric Moore is a Republican from the Miles City area.
“Preschool's very controversial because a lot of people when they first hear it they think government subsidized daycare and that is absolutely not what we’re after.”
He says he plans to introduce a bill, likely next month, to create a new optional preschool program for the state.
“So my proposal is going to be based on what they do in Alabama. It’s going to be a separate agency with a cabinet-level position that reports to the governor. And it’s going to a block grant, school choice, money-follow-the-student model, where K-12 districts, existing Head Start programs and private providers will be eligible.”
Moore says a dollar figure on the block grant funding for his idea hasn’t been set, but it will likely be lower than what Gov. Bullock is asking for his proposal.
Some Republican legislators are skeptical about state-funded preschool, arguing that early childhood development is up to parents.
However, Republican Rep. Bruce Grubbs from Bozeman says he sees an appetite for a preschool program as long as it’s optional and continues to allow private providers.
Grubbs sits on the House Education Committee. He says the preschool issue this session will likely come down to what it should look like in Montana, not if the state should have a preschool program.
“I think for most of the legislators I’ve talked to, it’s how is it going to look. It depends on budget, a lot of it.”
According to a 2017 report from researchers at the Brookings Institution and more than half a dozen universities, there is convincing evidence showing that children attending public school pre-k programs are more ready to enter the school system than children who did not attend pre-k.
However, it also says there’s too little research to say whether or not there are long-term positive or negative impacts for early pre-k programs.
Researchers concluded that “implementation of scaled-up pre-k programs is in order as long as the implementation is accompanied by rigorous evaluation of impact."
The study also says pre-k programs are not all equally effective. Debate about potential programs in Montana will likely continue throughout the session.