Several local preschool options will be adding slots this school year thanks to money from a grant program created by the state Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock announced Friday. 

"Today it is a great privilege to be able to share that we're finally making a long-overdue investment in our kids," Bullock said at an announcement ceremony Friday morning at the Explorer's Academy Head Start building in Billings. 

Around the state, 17 programs were awarded grants ranging from $27,190 to $150,000. The state had $3 million to dole out this year.

Billings' Head Start program, which operates three preschool centers in Yellowstone County and plans to open another, will add 18 slots for 4-year-old students. 

Lockwood, which already dips into its regular school budget to run an alternating-day preschool program, will add a separate full-day program for 18 kids. The school has just started recruiting efforts for next school year. 

"It's a pretty quick turnaround," said Lockwood director of special programs Don Christman. 

Kountry Kare Preschool and Daycare program in Shepherd and the Beartooth Billings Clinic in Red Lodge were also awarded funding. 

The grants are doled out through the Department of Health and Human Services' Stars to Quality program, which began as a preschool ranking system. Grant recipients had to meet certain criteria, and officials aimed to include Head Start providers, public schools and private preschools. 

The grants will effectively function as a pilot program for the state.

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"What they’ve provided was money for a pilot so we can demonstrate, address some of the concerns that legislators have, like it wouldn’t work in smaller rural areas or it wouldn’t work with community-based providers," Bullock said. "So to demonstrate with a track record that this is an investment that we can’t afford not to make."

Bullock said he would like to see the program expanded in the future and that he views it as both an economic investment and a means of providing opportunities children should have. "What we ought to be able to do at some point, I mean my hope, is that any program that applies and meets the basic qualifications, we'll say 'You're darn right we'll be funding you.' It won't be 'we can only fund so many of these programs.'"

Preschool funding proposals haven't gained traction in the Mountain West, despite programs providing variable levels of public funding in at least 45 states. Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota and New Hampshire provide no funding; North Dakota recently killed a $3 million program.

Bullock asked for $37 million for preschool in 2015 and $12 million in 2017; instead, a compromise was reached during budget negotiations. 

Legislators created a new fee for hospitals that will raise $13 million over the next two years; $6 million is earmarked for preschool grants, and the rest goes into the general fund. The payments were described as "temporary" in the law authorizing them. 

Finding new funding sources for the creation of preschool programs has often been critical to getting them off the ground in conservative states. For example, New Mexico's Republican Governor signed off on a new preschool program funded through a state tobacco settlement in 2013. 

Some Montana Republicans who objected to the grant funding bill pointed to bill language that says the state will "test multiple delivery models, including public programs, private programs and mixed delivery programs through public-private partnerships," as evidence that DPHHS will do more than expand the existing Stars to Quality program.

At least some school officials think renewable funding would be ideal. 

"Our hope is that it will, in two years, just be embraced as part of what we do," Christman said. 

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