HELENA – The Montana Legislature will hold its first hearing this week on what is likely to be a major issue during their session – proposals to expand access to preschool in the state.
Gov. Steve Bullock has made investing in preschool one of his top goals for the session. During his State of the State Address on Thursday, he laid out his proposal: $22 million for public schools to offer preschool, and $8 million to continue the STARS Preschool program for Head Start and other private and community programs.
“Let’s provide kids and families in rural and urban areas access to high-quality, voluntary, affordable options,” said Bullock. “The future leaders of our state deserve no less.”
In 2017, the Legislature approved $6 million over two years for the STARS Preschool pilot program. So far, 18 public and private programs have received grants to expand preschool availability.
Because that program was only approved for two years, lawmakers and the governor will have to agree on a new plan if state spending on preschool is to continue.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner (D-Great Falls) said he believes there is an appetite for greater support of early education.
“The people of Montana are begging for an opportunity to get their four-year-olds in, to make them more competitive in the market in the future, as far as jobs are concerned, as far as college is concerned,” he said.
Schreiner is sponsoring House Bill 225 , which includes several of the governor’s education initiatives. In addition to increasing special education funding and funding a loan program to recruit teachers for rural schools, it would allow school districts to receive additional ANB funding – state money paid based on the number of students enrolled – for preschool programs.
“It is focused on a system that we already know is successful; these schools already exist in our communities,” he said. “But it also provides boundaries and standards through the ANB system that make sure that what the state’s paying for is they’re getting a quality product.”
But some Republicans are working on an alternative preschool model. Rep. Eric Moore (R-Miles City) plans to introduce a bill that would establish block grants to support preschool programs. The money would be available to both public and private programs.
Moore also wants to see early education handled by a new state department, with a cabinet-level director. Currently, STARS Preschool falls under the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and Bullock’s proposed funding for public preschool would be through the Office of Public Instruction.
“I don’t want DPHHS to be jack of all trades and master of none, and I don’t particularly want to increase the OPI bureaucracy,” Moore said.
Moore said his proposal is based on the early education system in Alabama. He visited the state with Bullock and Democratic Sen. Nate McConnell in the fall and was impressed with how its program was operated.
Schreiner said he’s skeptical about the need for an independent early education authority.
“We’ve had a successful Board of Public Ed, there’s a system already in place,” he said. “There’s no need to grow government to accomplish the task of giving young people the opportunity for a good education. So if that’s the ideas they’re talking about, the last thing I think Montanans want is for us to create more bureaucracy to get our kids educated.”
But Moore said his plan is the one that can win support from majority Republicans in the Legislature. He said he has seen the benefits of voluntary preschool, but he knows others in his party will have to be convinced. Lawmakers have voted down Bullock’s requests for larger preschool funding in previous sessions.
“If we’re going to do preschool, it should be on a school choice, merit-based, money-follow-the-student model, and it doesn’t need to be within DPHHS,” he said. “That’s where we’re going to start the conversation. If we’re going to do preschool at all, I think my model is better, and I think Republicans will like it.”
The House Education Committee will hold an initial hearing on HB 225 Monday afternoon. Moore said his bill will not be introduced until later in the session, possibly in March.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News