Whiteboard lessons

From left, Brennan Anderson, Kody Nolan, Blake Schwartz and Elena Zahn choose letters from a whiteboard at Lockwood School in this 2017 photo. 

Montana plans to apply for a new round of preschool development grants, the same program that helped create 750 high-quality preschool slots across the state. 

The 2018-2019 school year is the final year that funding from a four-year, $40 million grant will be used. While the cost of maintaining preschool programs is expected to be less than the cost of creating them, it's unclear where funding for slots created by the grants will come from beyond this school year. 

Officials from the Office of Public Instruction, Department of Public Health and Human Services and Gov. Steve Bullock's office are still working out who will be the grant's lead applicant, how much the state will apply for and which programs an application would target, according to OPI spokesman Dylan Klapmeier. 

Preschool Development Grants were written into the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

The new round of grants will focus on existing programs, which could play to Montana's favor in finding funding for the high quality slots. But other tweaks, like the expanding of age ranges and removal of requirements for teachers to have bachelor's degrees, make the grants available for programs unlike Montana's. 

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Not all of the 750 slots were completely new; some were converted from less-rigourous programs to high-quality slots, which meet requirements like a certified early-childhood teacher and a low teacher-student ratio.

The application window closes in November, and the feds plan to dole out about 40 different grants of between $500,000 and $15 million. 

It's unclear what exactly the cost of sustaining preschool slots will be. 

The price of preschool seats far exceeded projections during the first year of grant implementation, with costs soaring to an average of more than $14,000 per slot.

Officials expected costs to drop in year two. They plummeted, down to about $5,000 per seat. The state originally targeted a price tag of about $3,500.

Bullock has pushed state funding for preschool programs, and he and the legislature passed a two-year, $6 million pilot program in 2017. But legislators shot down earlier, more expensive asks from Bullock. 

It's likely that Bullock makes another funding push in the 2019 legislature, but again the structure of any future proposal is still up in the air. 

Research on the effectiveness of public preschool is mixed, but most shows that programs lead to better academicsocial and career achievement for students.

recent study in Oklahoma highlighted the importance of high-quality programs, like those required by the federal grant, in order to ensure student improvement.

Poor students are less likely to come into kindergarten prepared for school than their more well-off peers. According to a 2017 report on Montana's preschool slots, 58 percent of preschoolers given a kindergarten readiness assessment were ready for kindergarten by the end of the school year. Growth from the beginning to the end of the year was steepest for American Indian students, who typically perform worse on standardized tests than their white peers in later years — part of a well-documented achievement gap.

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