Preschool is about our state’s future, not the political fight of the day

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock reads to a preschool class at WF Morrison Elementary School in Troy. (Benjamin Kibbey/The Western News)

Last summer, I met a woman in Lewistown who told me she made too much money to qualify for Head Start but couldn’t afford to have her son in the kind of quality program that would give him a great start. I met parents in Wibaux who had to drive 30 miles away to take their kids to the closest childcare provider.

It was because of the pilot preschool program Republicans and Democrats funded in the 2017 Montana legislative session that allowed that mom in Lewistown to stay in the workforce and the parents in Wibaux to have a preschool option in the same town where they live.

STARS Preschool has demonstrated that not only is high-quality preschool in demand in communities of all sizes across the state, but that it improves school readiness for children who attend. By the end of the first year of the STARS Preschool pilot, 93% of participating children were “kindergarten ready,” significantly higher than the 50% readiness that most Montana school districts report. When students enter kindergarten ready to learn, they are more likely to succeed in school and beyond, reducing the need for precious taxpayer dollars in special education, child protection services, corrections and safety net programs.

It is with this recognition of the importance of this investment that I continue to work with Democrat and Republican legislators this legislative session to ensure we not only maintain the investments we have made the last two years, but that we also expand those investments to serve even more Montana kids and families.

That is why I was disappointed when the House Education Committee tabled HB 755, a bipartisan proposal from Republican Rep. Eric Moore of Miles City to invest in preschool for Montana. The opponents killed it before the committee even had a chance to discuss the merits of the bill.

Representative Moore’s bill, co-sponsored by Democratic House Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, would have allowed existing federally- and state-funded pilot programs to continue for another year until a permanent system is underway, preventing dozens of classrooms and 1,400 children being served now from being cut off. Starting in 2020, it had the potential to serve 3,000-4,000 preschoolers each year and all across our state – many of whom are not being served in a high-quality program today. And it would have made clear the future of preschool in this state by providing certainty for families, schools, and communities that publicly-funded preschool will become permanent in Montana.

Unfortunately, some folks in Capitol hallways were able to derail this bipartisan, Montana-made approach to preschool based off the assumption that it only benefits private preschool providers. But they don’t have the facts.

FACT: Of the 44 states that fund preschool, 43 do so with a mixed delivery system of public schools, Head Starts and private providers. That’s not by accident; the best practice research shows that qualified and quality providers – be they public school, Head Start, or Little Bo Peep – provide great programs and get the outcomes we are looking for. With HB 755, which is, frankly, very similar to what I have proposed in the past and this legislative session, public schools, Head Starts and community-based providers, if they meet our quality expectations, will be eligible to provide preschool services.

FACT: This does not privatize public education or create charter schools. There’s a reason it’s called PRE-school. This is about giving our children the social and emotional aptitude they need to succeed once they enter into kindergarten. And, for those now saying that helping kids during this developmental time is funding private schools, if that’s the case, the ship sailed a long time ago. For years we have funded programs that make private providers better and give parents the ability to afford a quality childcare option for their children before they enter kindergarten.

FACT: This is about our kids and our state’s future, and it is our kids who will benefit. The fact is, preschool is where kids acquire the foundational skills to succeed in school and life. By the time a child is five years old, the brain is mostly developed. Studies show that many children start kindergarten up to 18 months behind their peers. High-quality, voluntary preschool for four-year-olds is a proven practice to increase school readiness and close the achievement and opportunity gap.

FACT: Investing in preschool also has the immediate benefit of supporting our existing workforce, as retention of young parents in our businesses will be enhanced by increasing access to high-quality, affordable preschool. Reduced absenteeism, turnover and improved productivity of our current workforce are critical for the success of the Montana economy.

FACT: There are not enough votes in the 66th Montana Legislature to pass a proposal with my name on it. But there are legislators on both sides of the aisle who care about our future and know this is the right thing to do. They have come to the table to find a way to make preschool a reality for Montana and proposed a compromise plan that would do just that for generations of Montanans.

I always have and always will be a proud supporter and defender of Montana’s public schools. Montana’s public education allowed me to go from delivering newspapers to the Governor’s residence as a kid to actually living in it one day. It is that very same public education that I fight for every single kid in this state to have the same opportunities I did growing up and even more. Public funding for preschool, no matter how it is delivered, doesn’t degrade public education. It enhances it. We can’t let this preschool opportunity slip by. Our future leaders deserve no less.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock

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