Governor Steve Bullock's early childhood education proposal received an enthusiastic response today at a Missoula pre-kindergarten program, even as critics are wondering about its expense and value to taxpayers.
The $37 million program, dubbed "Early Edge Montana" would make block grants available to every school district in the state. That money would fund voluntary preschool programs. Public school districts could create a brand new program or partner with an existing local preschool.
Bullock plans to include the proposal in the two-year budget he presents to state legislators next month.
Missoula school superintendent Alex Apostle met with Bullock today during his appearance at the Missoula Community School early education program. Apostle says he thinks "Early Edge Montana" is a terrific idea.
"I believe that the sooner that we can support our students in terms of their education, the better," Apostle said. "I think that making sure that our young children enter kindergarten with various skills would enhance their ability to be successful throughout their educational career."
Lee newspapers reported earlier this week that Republican Senator Lew Jones of Conrad questions whether the program is the best use of state money for education. Republican state Representative Don Jones of Billings asked why the program wouldn't just target "at-risk" children. Governor Bullock says that approach runs the risk of stigmatizing certain kids.
"The stigma being that, if it just becomes an income-qualification....
"I as a parent - every parent - does the best that they can," Bullock says, "but wouldn't necessarily always be sending children to that program because of the stigma that can attach, 'The only reason I can do this is because I'm an income-level family.' We're only serving even 45% of the population that would be eligible for Head Start, and that's because of capacity and funding issues."
Bullock acknowledges that $37 million is a lot to ask of state lawmakers and taxpayers, but he says it represents a long-term potential cost savings.
"We spend $84 million a year on special education programs," Bullock says. "I was in Great Falls yesterday with their publicly-funded preschool and they talked about, because we know that 90 percent of the brain develops by the time we're five - you know how important this is - but, they had ten of their kids that had moved off of needing special education services and were mainstreamed. So, we can save dollars there."
Montana is one of eight states without any state investment in preschool programs.