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. 

A publicly funded preschool proposal split Democrats, Republicans and education advocates, but the result remained the same as most preschool votes in recent years. The House Education Committee tabled the bill on a 9-8 vote Wednesday, effectively killing it.

The move comes as a blow to Gov. Steve Bullock’s ambitions to create a sprawling publicly funded preschool system. The proposal, House Bill 755, was carried by Rep. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican, who advocated for a school choice-rooted system that included private providers.

The bill drew ire from several public education advocacy groups for its inclusion of private providers who would receive public money, and for a potential jurisdictional clash with the Board of Public Education. Others said that the bill, if not perfect, was the best option for putting preschool funding in place that couldn’t wait and that might not be feasible without a compromise.

The committee also killed a previously introduced preschool proposal that Bullock had backed on party lines.

With no other sweeping preschool bills introduced at the legislature and the deadline for new bills passed, the prospect of an overhaul seems dead. But in 2017 a relatively small-dollar compromise that funded Montana’s expiring public program wasn’t reached until April of that year, so the prospect of some preschool funding may have a faint heartbeat.

Moore is an unlikely backer of preschool. He was deeply skeptical of Bullock’s proposal in 2015.

“If you feel that early education is unnecessary, and is basically just government-sponsored day care, I don’t blame you. At one point in time, I felt the same way,” he said.

Moore visited Alabama with Gov. Steve Bullock last year, and said that reviewing preschool and brain development research turned him around.

The bill would have established a new department of early childhood, which would have received $400,000 for operations. But the preschool program wouldn't have launched until 2020, when $11 million would be set aside for distribution to participating preschool programs. The funding would have become part of the BASE education budget, and not needed a new bill outside of the state budget for renewal each year.

About $3 million would have gone toward preschool programs that have received money from the federal Preschool Development Grant to help them bridge the gap before new funding would have been available. About $2 million would have gone toward classrooms funded by the state STARS program, the two-year, $6 million program passed in 2017.

Siri Smillie, Bullock’s education adviser, said that the proposal was “not a perfect bill, from the governor’s perspective,” but that overall Bullock supported it.

She cited expiring funding in Montana’s STARS program, two years of pilot funding passed in 2017, and federal preschool development grants, which pumped $40 million into the state over the course of four years.

“There is not a plan B,” Smillie said. Without new funding, some programs “have indicated to their teachers that they will not be coming back next year.”

Bullock blasted the bill's failure in a press release Wednesday night. 

"I’m not just deeply disappointed, I’m disgusted. After years of statewide efforts to grow preschool classrooms and show that investing in our kids is absolutely critical to our future, two Democrats joined seven Republicans in killing a path to make preschool permanent," he said in the press release.

"It is clear that today false information from lobbyists won the day rather than Montana families. I commend the five Democrats and three Republicans who put four-year-olds above special interests. As always, I will never stop fighting for preschool for Montana — and that includes for the remainder of this session.”

'Deal breakers'

Tammy Lacey, Great Falls Public Schools’ superintendent and a member of the Board of Public Education, called herself, “a reluctant proponent.”

“I am a desperate superintendent trying to figure how to sustain and even expand the preschool that we have in Great Falls,” she said. That program has been funded in part by the expiring federal grant.

Between STARS and the federal grant, Montana created more than 1,500 high-quality preschool slots since 2015.

Grace Decker, a Missoula County Public Schools trustee who also founded a private preschool, said that it's important to make high-quality programs available to more families without financial means to afford high child care costs.

“I believe strongly in supporting our public schools, and I want our public schools to do more early childhood education,” she said.

Lacey, despite her testimony in support, also listed several concerns, which her usual allies expounded upon.

Kirk Miller, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, spoke against the bill.

“I believe that we’re very much on board with preschool and wanting that to happen,” he said, but the provisions for private programs and the new department were deal breakers.

He also criticized the idea the standards and regulations for preschool need to be established, pointing to existing Board of Public Education requirements.

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Peter Donovan, executive director of the Board of Public Education, echoed concerns about legal clashes between the board and a future preschool agency.

Preschool rules, he said, are “in effect and being administered around the state as we speak.”

Miller instead recommended resurrecting House Bill 225, a preschool proposal from Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Great Falls Democrat, that hasn’t gotten a vote on the committee since it was introduced Feb. 5.

The committee did consider the bill, but rejected an amendment from Schreiner that would have streamlined the bill then tabled it, effectively killing the proposal.

Eric Feaver, president of the state teacher's union, said the union supported funding public school and Head Start programs, but private programs were a poison pill.

“We have never supported the privatization of public education in this state,” he said.

He focused legal threats on Board of Public Education issues and potential equity issues.

“If you pass this bill as it is now, and you can expect legal action on this matter,” Feaver said.

Rep. Moffie Funk, the Democrat who made the motion to table the bill, told Moore that the creation of a new preschool director was one of the “most troubling” components, especially since it had no requirements for early-childhood expertise.

“What was your philosophy behind creating this very expensive position?” she said.

Moore emphasized the model’s adherence to one used by Alabama, while arguing that the Department of Public Health and Human Services already has too high a workload, and that the Office of Public Instruction isn’t in the business of regulating private programs.

“This is not something that I spit-balled on the back of a napkin,” he said. “This is politics, and politics is the art of the possible.”

For Funk, possible needed more time.

“This is a huge bill," she said. "It has so many components. Lots of good ideas, lots of bad ideas.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.