STARS preschool class

Governor Steve Bullock accepts a handmade card from students in a STARS preschool class at Explorers Academy in Billings on March 27, 2018 file photo.

The last of many nails was driven into the coffin of public preschool funding at the Montana legislature Thursday, as two last-ditch proposals were rejected. 

That leaves no replacement for the expiring $3 million-per-year STARS preschool program and no aid for public preschool programs built using a four-year, $40 million federal grant. 

The final two proposals, brought as amendments to SB 352, a budget companion bill, reflected both ambitions for a sweeping program that has been coveted by Gov. Steve Bullock and attempts to keep what the state already has in place. A free conference committee advanced the bill after rejecting the amendments Thursday. 

A proposal from Rep. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican, left much of the framework of his earlier bill that encompassed public schools, private programs, and Head Start programs, but it eliminated a new state early education department. After a bridge year to get up and running, it would have cost about $11 million per year.

The committee rejected a similar amendment Wednesday in a 4-2 vote, and the changes Thursday made no difference, with Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no. 

An amendment from Sen. Jon Sesso, a Butte Democrat, would have extended STARS funding and offered aid to programs that had received money from federal Preschool Development Grants worth $11 million over two years. It was killed on the same party lines as Moore's amendment. 

“There are a lot of families that are served by this program, and I don’t want to let them down,” Sesso said. 

Sen. Ryan Osmundson, a Fergus County Republican, argued both proposals were too expensive. 

“This is always the challenge with accepting federal money and starting new programs, is when the federal government starts backing out, we start, as a state, having to back-fill these things,” he said.  

Sen. Nancy Ballance, a Hamilton Republican, appeared unswayed by any evidence that STARS, which was pitched as a pilot program, was worth the money. She argued that the program shouldn't be extended. 

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“It just doesn’t make sense to me to run another pilot," she said. 

Bullock had trumpeted a state-issued report that called the STARS program "successful in every sense."

In a press release emailed out only seconds after the committee killed the amendments, legislative Democrats blasted Republicans for abandoning existing preschool programs. 

The amendments Wednesday and Thursday were supported by Democrats, as was a bill earlier in the session from Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Great Falls Democrat, that died in committee. 

But Moore's HB 755, the model for his amendments, split both Democrats and Republicans in its vote in the House Education Committee. Schreiner and Bullock supported the bill, but funding for private providers and a new state department proved too much for some Democrats to stomach, especially amid opposition from education advocacy groups. 

And while Moore sponsored the bill, it didn't swing widespread Republican support. After the bill's failure, Bullock blasted both Republicans and Democrats who opposed it

The attempts to use a companion bill as a vehicle for a preschool program attracted hawkish attention from education advocacy groups, like the Montana School Boards Association and state teacher's union, who opposed Moore's proposal. The STARS program's creation through a companion bill in 2017 went largely unnoticed by those groups, who argued that the inclusion of funding for private programs could lead to expanded funding for K-12 private schools in Montana. 

Education groups opposed the use of free conference committees like Thursday's to legislate policy issues. Legislators have wide latitude to make both fiscal and policy changes in such committees. 

What the funding cliff means for preschool programs isn't totally clear, though many are bracing for cuts. Both public and private STARS programs have prepared to reduce services to account for the loss of funding, as have some public programs built with preschool development grant money. 

STARS had added about 300 high-quality preschool slots in Montana. Preschool Development Grant-funded programs added more than 1,000 more. A new $4.2 million federal preschool grant the state received will be put toward a preschool study, not direct funding for slots. 

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