Representative Tom Woods sent his kids to preschool after searching for a couple of months to find the right fit.
“I’ve got kids. I’ve been through this,” Woods said in a recent interview. “Preschool helped them.”
Woods, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, will be one of the Democrats pushing to get Governor Steve Bullock’s $37 million Early Edge Pre-K plan into House Bill 2, the major budget bill. The plan would give grants to public school districts around the state to expand existing preschool programs, create new ones or partner with private programs.
It would be voluntary and would add Montana to the list of more than 40 states with publicly funded preschool.
But not everyone at the Capitol or in the state is convinced.
“I think it doesn’t do what it’s purported to do,” said Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, the chair of the House Appropriations committee.
Backers cite studies showing effects both behavioral and academic. Students come out of preschool more prepared for kindergarten, and are less likely to become criminals or teenage parents.
At a joint subcommittee on education hearing in January, teachers and administrators from schools in Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls, Three Forks and Boulder supported the proposal. Some said it improved children’s confidence, others said it gave them a jump on what they’d learn in kindergarten. Major public school lobbying groups supported the governor’s proposal at the same hearing, including the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana Rural Education Association.
Yet some lawmakers and educators still have concerns.
Ballance called preschool “daycare with accredited teachers" and said the so-called “edge” wears off for students by third or fourth grade.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau rejected both of those arguments, saying students do learn. For example, the basics of reading and counting, among other concepts. She doesn’t think learning wears off.
“We’re going to have better students,” Juneau said.
Other criticisms center on whether it would work in smaller schools or reach the students who need it most. Senators Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, and Llew Jones, R-Conrad, both said school representatives told them Early Edge won’t help small schools and that students who need it most won’t enroll in the programs.
One of the more outspoken critics is Gordon Hahn, superintendent of Saco Schools. Hahn wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Billings Gazette in late January, calling for higher teacher pay instead of investment in Pre-K.
“I care about the $37 million that’s being spent on it,” Hahn said, stressing that he isn’t opposed to preschool. His own kids went to preschool. “It’s money that could be used to solve a problem.”
Hahn has worked at schools along Montana’s Hi-Line for more than three decades, spending the last seven years as superintendent in Saco. He said schools in places like Saco, with a population around 200 people, have trouble attracting teachers. He’s seeing fewer applicants for open positions than he has in the past, which he blames on not being able to offer high enough salaries.
“I’m trying to fill my positions, and the governor wants me to start a new program,” Hahn said.
As for starting a new preschool program, Hahn said only two or three students would enroll, and the teacher would only work part time.
“Who am I going to get to come to Saco and teach part time?” he said.
In Helmville, just west of Helena, teacher Brooks Phillips shares some of the same concerns.
Phillips teaches seventh and eighth grades at Helmville’s K-8 school. Two others teach there also, with one covering fourth through sixth grades. The other teaches the earlier grades.
Helmville offers a once a week preschool program, where students around 4-years-old join the younger classroom. Phillips said the purpose is to sort of show the children how school works, to get the feel for a classroom setting.
But Phillips said adding 4-year-olds to the mix in a school as small as hers can disrupt classroom dynamics. With each instructor covering more than one grade, students at different levels are already in the same classroom. In that sort of setting, while third and fourth graders are studying math, a preschooler might be nearby playing. Phillips said that could be a distraction.
“They need to be little children, like they are,” Phillips said. “It’s a very difficult situation when you’re in a rural school with multi-grades, multi-ages and multi-levels.”
Teaching at a school like that is already hard on teachers, she said. Not because of the number of students – fewer than 20 attend Helmville School – but because students are different ages and at different levels. Five students in a classroom may be learning five separate things.
Phillips also said she worries that even though it’s voluntary now, that doesn’t mean the program won’t be mandatory for schools to offer in the future. She points out that kindergarten was at one time optional.
Schools in Montana have been required to offer kindergarten since the 1980s, though students aren’t required to attend school until age 7. Superintendent Juneau said the debate surrounding
Early Edge is similar to what was debated about kindergarten, but she wouldn’t say whether preschool would become mandatory in Montana.
“It’s hard to tell,” Juneau said. “We’ll have to get it funded first.”
And funding it won’t be simple. A joint subcommittee on education didn’t act on the proposal.
Members of that panel said they wanted to leave it up to the larger House appropriations.
Ballance, the chair, is stiffly opposed to it, as are some other Republicans on the committee.
Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said the $37 million request is a big ask.
Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said in an e-mail that the governor thinks his request is “responsible” and an investment the state “can’t afford not to make.”
Other committee Republicans shared that concern, others said they don’t think the request addresses the right population of students, while at least two others said they are undecided.
“We’re not throwing sand in the governor’s face,” Hollandsworth said. “Everything is in play until the end.”
Rep. Woods said the Democrats will do everything they can to get the program funded every chance they get, no matter how much rejection they get during the 90-day session.
When’s the stopping point?
“Day 90,” Woods said, smiling.