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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.

About $46 million in public money has been pumped into the Montana preschool landscape since 2015. With the rejection of a pair of preschool bills at the Montana legislature this week, that spigot appears poised to run dry — leaving programs that added about 1,500 high quality slots grappling with shortfalls. 

Hardin and Great Falls could be trying to patch $500,000 holes. Lockwood could be scaling its preschool program back to an every-other-day lite model only two years after adding two full-time classrooms. A private provider in Shepherd could cut more than half of the high quality preschool hours it offers. 

It's not like the prospect of cuts is a surprise. The state STARS program, passed in 2017, provided $6 million in funding for two years only. The federal preschool development grant, a $40 million, four-year infusion, expired this school year, along with millions in matching state funding. A new federal grant from the same program will be for much less money, and none will directly fund local programs. 

Public money fueled preschool in Montana like a Hotwheels car dropped down a ramp, building speed. But now, as it careens forward, the track threatens to run out. 

“Ultimately, hopefully, there’ll be a way they can still figure something out,” said Mandy Berens, the owner of Kountry Kare, a private preschool in Shepherd

She estimates that without grant money, her program would cut back from 900 hours to 400. It may not necessarily mean that as many children won't be attending some type of preschool, but it probably won't be as much of the full-time, high-quality instruction that research recommends. 

Lockwood began a preschool lite program in about 2012, during which students attended roughly every other day. Students were targeted based on kindergarten readiness assessments and whether they had exposure to other preschool programs. They learned what is effectively the kindergarten curriculum at a slower pace, with a heavy focus on building social and behavioral skills. 

Kountry Kare

Children color worksheets at Kountry Kare, a private preschool in Shepherd, in this 2018 file photo. 

The STARS grant allowed the district to expand to two full-time classrooms with a dedicated preschool curriculum in 2017. 

Without the grant or any additional funding, the program will likely revert to its old model, superintendent Tobin Novasio said, though the final decision lies with school trustees. 

'The camel's nose'

Despite the prospect of lost funding, Novasio wrote a letter opposing a preschool bill carried by Rep. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican, that would have included bridge funding for STARS and federal grant-funded programs, plus a new $11 million-per-year pot of money for preschool funding. 

But the bill included provisions that many education advocates found untenable, like the inclusion of private programs and a new preschool department that could step on the toes of existing preschool regulations.

“I think a lot of us look at that as the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent for the privatization of public funds in Montana,” Novasio said. 

Other education advocates were willing to stomach those components in order to secure a wider funding stream. 

Novasio also isn't so sure that the bill did add to public schools' funding stream. 

Montana law allows public schools to have preschools, but it says that they can't be funded by the usual per-student money from the state.  

Lockwood funded its previous program in part through a little-used provision in Montana law that stands apart from the preschool law. It allows schools to enroll students younger or older than the usual K-12 age range because of "exceptional circumstances" and receive the usual per-student money stream. 

According to the Office of Public Instruction, 55 school districts received funding for 300 total students younger than the usual kindergarten enrollment age under the "exceptional circumstances" provision. 

Moore's bill would have included the new preschool program it created under "exceptional circumstances," ensuring public schools access to per-student funding for a true preschool program. 

Should Lockwood revert to its old program — which never did use the term preschool — it would likely turn to the same funding stream, Novasio said, which provided half the per-student funding for half-time students.  

“I don’t think it’s real widespread,” he said. “I don’t know that a lot of people were tapped in and realized it was something that could be done.”

More could be as districts facing preschool cuts search for money.

Hardin is a district that has not drawn significant funding for young students under "exceptional circumstances" in the past. 

Preschool development grants have turned Hardin into one of the most robust public school preschool programs in Montana, especially for a relatively small school district. The school has lobbied legislators hard to secure a state funding stream for preschool. 

Superintendent Chad Johnson, in his first year on the job, said the district remains committed to keeping as much of its preschool program as it can, even if that means cutting the district budget in other areas. 

He also said the district is looking into an option that would allow them to use per-student funding, much like Lockwood.  

But other districts view the "exceptional circumstances" provision as limited. And there's a reason Lockwood avoids the preschool tag and uses the kindergarten curriculum. 

Still searching

"I believe that the law indicates ... it is for kindergarten," said Tammy Lacey, Great Falls Public Schools' superintendent. 

Lacy offered "reluctant support" for Moore's preschool bill. Her district will see $500,000 in federal grant money disappear next year, and, without replacing any of that money from other sources, would loose three preschool classrooms.

She thinks that "exceptional circumstances" could be used to justify what she dubbed a "K-1" program that relied on kindergarten materials. But it can't be used to fund a robust preschool program like the one her district operates.

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"Our (preschool) program is not a kindergarten program," she said. 

Great Falls trustees have told her to pull out all the stops to try to save as much of the preschool program built under the federal grant as possible, she said. 

"We're trying to figure out how to cobble it all together," she said. 

The "exceptional circumstances" provision also doesn't help Head Start and private programs. 

Seven private programs received funding from the STARS program for up to 126 high quality preschool slots. Only one Head Start grantee received STARS funding.

But 11 Head Start programs received money from the larger federal grant, as did seven school districts and four other agencies.

In total, the grant added about 1,000 high quality slots that counted under federal requirements, and another 300 slots that didn't. The STARS grant created about 300 slots.  

STARS funded a classroom in Billings and one in Laurel through Explorer's Academy, Billings' Head Start program.

There's no replacement for that funding in the program's usual federal grant, said interim director Traci Wimmer. And if no state funding comes through, those classrooms will disappear. 

Both Moore's bill and an earlier proposal focusing on public school funding were tabled by the House Education Committee on Wednesday. The deadline for the introduction of new bills has passed, and with the deadline for movement of bills from one chamber to another looming Monday, neither has been picked up for a blast motion to the House floor.

Both bills and the odds of a sweeping overhaul appear unlikely.

But that doesn't mean no preschool money will materialize. The budget wrangling that funded the STARS grants wasn't settled until late April 2017. And, on Friday, the Senate Finance and Claims committees passed a series of placeholder bills that can effectively act as blank slates for budget amendments. 

There's no guarantee that any of those become a preschool vehicle. But Gov. Steve Bullock, in a statement blasting Democrats, Republicans and education groups who opposed the bill, vowed to keep pushing preschool. 

"I will never stop fighting for preschool for Montana," he said in a press release, "and that includes for the remainder of this session.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.