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STARS preschool class

Governor Steve Bullock talks with kids in a STARS preschool class at Explorers Academy on March 27, 2018. Bullock is still championing state funding of high-quality pre-kindergarten.

Republican legislators are poised to once again ignore Gov. Steve Bullock's budget proposals to fund public preschool. 

The $22 million that Bullock built into his budget proposal bit the dust in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, where legislators take early steps to build the state budget for K-12 schools and colleges. Bullock's recommendations aren't binding, though the final budget needs his signature. 

In the past, not getting asked-for preschool money hasn't prevented that. 

The subcommittee finalized its work Tuesday, but the move doesn't kill all preschool proposals. The passage of bills funding public preschool would require legislators to build that money into the budget, and budget finagling will likely continue deep into the legislative session. 

Legislators did quietly pass a $6 million program in 2017. A deal sent half of a new $12 million fee on hospitals toward Bullock's pilot preschool program, STARS, and half into the state's general fund to deal with a budget crunch. That deal wasn't reached until late April. 

But that was far less than Bullock asked for. In 2017, legislators rejected his $12 million ask. In 2015, legislators rejected his $37 million ask.

Bullock has made publicly funded preschool a priority, campaigning for funding while touting academic and economic benefits. 

The bill that would fund his preschool plan is awaiting executive action in the House Education Committee. Should it pass the full legislature and be signed by Bullock, it would be required to be funded in the budget. 

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Kirk Miller, the executive director of School Administrators of Montana, called the bill "the most important bill dedicated to public education, pre-K through 12 education, that you’ll hear this session," during its Feb. 5 hearing. 

On Tuesday, he said his group would continue to look for options to support preschool in the budget process and bills. 

“It’s on the radar for those of us advocates in the education community to continue that conversation,” he said. 

One of those could be a proposal from Miles City Republican Sen. Eric Moore, who has a preschool bill that's still in the draft process. Bills with money attached need to pass one chamber of the legislature by April 1 to be considered for passage. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.