A state-funded preschool program is on a fast track in the state Legislature. The policy introduced today is starting to reveal a rare clash between the state’s largest union and Gov. Steve Bullock.
The policy outlining voluntary preschool and the creation of a new state department of early childhood is carried by Rep. Eric Moore, a Republican from the Miles City area.
"I believe in early childhood development. I think there’s a lot more we know about early brain development in a child than we did even 10 years ago," Moore says.
House Bill 755 calls for the new department of early childhood to spread $11 million a year in funding to public, private, and Head Start preschool providers.
"I think our appropriation is going to be close to fitting demand," Moore says.
Moore estimates roughly a third of eligible kids in the state will enter the preschool program.
Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to support the policy along with some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner. Schreiner carried Bullock’s preschool program request that was rejected by Republicans earlier this session.
Governor's Office Spokesperson Ronja Abel says Bullock is pleased to see another proposal to fund preschool for four-year-olds in Montana.
However the state’s largest union, which represents public teachers, is standing against the bill over concerns that it funds private preschool providers.
"We’re disappointed we have found ourselves in a position of conflict with the governor. Wish that we were not here," says Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
Feaver says House Bill 755 is an attempt to create what are effectively charter schools for early education, which would be overseen, to some extent, by a new cabinet level position.
"And so you the taxpayer, and I the taxpayer, would pay for that opportunity to privatize what is a public responsibility, a public institution."
The proposal has been given a political fast track ahead of a legislative deadline next Monday when spending bills must pass out of the House chamber to move over to the Senate.
House Bill 755 gets its first hearing Wednesday and could pass out of committee the same day.
During the final days of the 2017 legislative session Montana lawmakers passed a pilot preschool program. However the state remains one of about half a dozen in the country without an established policy to fund preschool into the future.