HELENA – Montana lawmakers will soon decide whether they want to increase the state’s commitment to funding voluntary preschool programs.
A major new proposal to extend public funding for preschool was introduced Monday – and will have its first hearing on Wednesday.
House Bill 755 is sponsored by Rep. Eric Moore (R-Miles City). He said he has been convinced there can be benefits to expanding preschool access, especially for lower-income and single-parent households.
“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 ten years ago,” he said. “So I believe in the policy; I think it’s right.”
But Moore wants to make big changes from the state’s first plan for providing preschool funding – the STARS Preschool pilot project, approved for two years during the 2017 legislative session.
“We’re changing the funding model, we’re changing the provider eligibility, and we’re changing the administration,” he said.
HB 755 would create a new state Department of Early Childhood, with a director appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
The director would be tasked with creating quality control standards for preschool programs seeking state funding – including teacher qualifications, class size, curriculum and school readiness. They would also oversee payments to providers that met those requirements.
The program would be open to public schools, Head Start programs and private providers.
Head Start and private providers would receive funding directly from the Department of Early Childhood.
School districts would get theirs through the Office of Public Instruction’s existing ANB system, which provides state money based on the number of students enrolled.
The bill would provide $11 million for preschool providers in the 2020-21 school year. Moore said that would be enough to serve about 3,500 four-year-olds, based on the idea that about a third of the eligible children in the state will take part.
If more providers apply than there is money for, priority will be given to applicants in districts with high rates of poverty.
The STARS Preschool pilot program, under the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, received $6 million over two years and made grants to 18 public and private preschool providers.
HB 755 would appropriate another $2 million to continue that program for another year until the new system can start.
Moore said his bill is based on early education systems in other states, like Alabama. He visited Alabama with Gov. Steve Bullock last year and was impressed with their program. He said it makes sense to put preschool under a separate department, reporting directly to the governor.
“It really doesn’t belong in DPHHS – and that’s nothing wrong with the department, but really that department has enough to do,” he said.
Moore said the Department of Early Childhood would be small, with only about four employees.
“We’re not looking at another big bulky bureaucracy,” he said.
Bullock has made investing in preschool a top priority for this legislative session. His original proposal included $22 million for public schools to offer preschool, and $8 million to continue the STARS Preschool program for Head Start and private providers.
In a statement Monday, Bullock’s office had some praise for HB 755.
“Governor Bullock is pleased there is another proposal to fund high-quality preschool for four-year-olds in Montana,” said Ronja Abel, Bullock’s communications director.
“While the proposal is different from the one the Governor originally proposed, he is also pleased to see that it includes key elements such as requiring providers to meet quality standards, using the existing school funding formula, and providing a bridge to continue funding for existing classrooms around the state.”
But the bill has drawn strong opposition from some public school advocates, including the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents public school teachers.
MFPE President Eric Feaver said they could support providing state funding for public preschool and Head Start programs, but that giving state money to private providers would be a step toward increased privatization of education in Montana.
“We aren’t going to surrender, because once we decide as a state that it’s okay policy to privatize an age level, a portion of our public school enterprise – well, then, why not any age level?” he said.
Feaver said they question the need for a separate department when the Board of Public Education already sets standards for public schools. He also criticized the tight timetable for taking action on HB 755.
The bill must pass the House by an April 1 deadline in order to stay alive. It will be heard in the House Education Committee on Wednesday, and Moore expects the committee will take action the same day. The bill could reach the House floor by Friday.
“That’s fast-track, to say the least, and certainly intended to shut down public debate on the issue,” Feaver said. “I find that bad lawmaking.”
Moore said he knew there would be opposition to his bill because of the inclusion of private providers.
“If the teacher’s union position is that the only way they can get behind this is to preserve the existing monopoly, then we can’t get together,” he said. “They’ll whip votes and we’ll whip votes, and someone will win and someone will lose.”
He said it won’t be easy to get HB 755 passed, but he believes there could be a coalition of members from both parties that will back his proposal.
“It’s going to be a lift; it’s a pretty big change,” he said.