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STARS preschool class

Governor Steve Bullock reads a book and asks questions of students in a STARS preschool class at Explorers Academy on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.

Gov. Steve Bullock has taken a big swings at publicly funded preschool — legislators rejected a $37 million ask in 2015 and $12 million in 2017.

Batter up, 2019.

The House Education committee heard a bill that would set aside more than $45 million dollars for public schools to begin and operate preschool programs through 2023, part of a larger preschool package in Bullock's proposed budget.

The bill also rolls in another longstanding Democratic priority, an inflationary increase for special education payments that the school funding formula lacks, and it funds a loan repayment program for educators in rural schools.

“Education funding is a jigsaw puzzle, and we need do to what we can to make sure each one of those pieces is adequately addressed,” said Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, who carried the bill, HB 225, at Bullock's request.

But preschool, he said, was the “star of the show.”

Bullock

“Kids who are ready for kindergarten are more likely to read at grade level, graduate from high school and earn more money as adults,” Bullock said at a Monday press conference in support of Schreiner’s bill.

The governor has been beating the preschool drum for years, and has turned up the volume since the legislature passed a $6 million pilot program in 2017, STARS, that funded public schools, private programs and a Head Start program.

His proposed budget calls for spending about $30 million over the next two years, with about two-thirds slated for public schools.

Public school programs would be optional for trustees to implement, and voluntary for parents to enroll their children in. 

Bullock has visited STARS classrooms across the state, and touted results from a state-produced report showing that students were likely to be prepared for kindergarten. 

Preschool funding has also taken on a new urgency as a $40 million grant that created more than 1,000 new high-quality program seats runs out, and a new grant won't be used to replace that money

Educators from around that state have been more than willing to rally to the preschool cause. 

Jill Miller, a principal from Eastgate Elementary in East Helena, told legislators her school has operated a classroom for four years, and added another through the STARS program. She emphasized the program’s access to special education resources and highly trained educators.

“There are naysayers who simply say that pre-K is simply providing free day care to parents,” she said. “(But) my kindergarten teachers will tell you that they notice a significant different between those who have had high quality preschool and those who have not.”

Tammy Lacey, the superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools, spoke about her district’s 125-student program that she said could have 400 students if there was enough funding.

“My phone rings off the hook every August with parents begging for their children to be in our preschool,” she said.

Lolo Schools’ superintendent focused on how establishing a public preschool program didn’t negatively impact local private programs. Fairfield’s superintendent said the district’s 15-person program might actually be proportionally larger the Great Falls one.

Lockwood Superintendent Tobin Novasio, whose district expanded from a half-day program to a full-day program thanks to a STARS grant, submitted a letter of support for the bill. 

"All our former Pre-K students who are now in grades 3-5 at our Intermediate School, 75 percent are at or above grade level in Reading, exceed(ing) the scores (of) our overall student population by 8 percent despite our program targeting students who scored the lowest on the screening tools as 4 year olds," he wrote.

A host of alphabet soup education advocacy groups — School Administrators of Montana, the Montana Rural Education Association, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana Quality Education Center — lined up in support.

Testimony referenced studies about economic impacts and tugged at heartstrings — a grandmother from Great Falls described the importance of a public preschool program to two grandchildren she’s raising who have social-emotional and academic delays as the result of meth exposure before birth.

But legislators haven’t opened their checkbook in the past.

Opposition

No one spoke in opposition at Monday’s hearing. But public preschool has found plenty of pushback in recent years.

A 2015 letter signed by 40 Republican legislators, including current Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, opposed a federal grant that helped create hundreds of new seats across Montana.

The letter cited concerns about potential competition with private providers, and concerns about sustainability after the grant runs out.

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Legislators have also expressed skepticism about studies that show lifelong academic, social and economic benefits and questioned whether programs differ from daycare. In 2017, a budget crunch led to both K-12 and higher education budget cuts.

Some have argued that early childhood is parents’ domain.

Sen. Dan Salomon, a Ronan Republican, noted during a March interim legislative committee hearing that Montana has no constitutional obligation to pay for preschool. He recalled constituents opposing the addition of state funding for kindergarten.

"'Now I’m having to pay for somebody else’s kids?' And they’ve got a point,” he said. “These parents of these pre-K, they need to step up and do what they need to do.”

Other proposals

Schreiner's bill may not be the only attempt to fund any of the three programs. 

At least one other bill would fund the loan repayment program, which legislators de-funded last session, plus it would create an additional related payment to schools. 

And the 2017 fee on hospitals that funded the STARS program wasn't passed until late in the session, well after legislators rejected Bullock's first proposal. 

Each session, a variety of bills address special education funding. 

“Special education costs are escalating rapidly,” said Lolo superintendent Dale Olinger. 

Wrapping the three ideas together is its own type of big swing. 

Kirk Miller, the executive director of School Administrators of Montana and a longtime education advocate at the legislature, said that his group gave the bill its "highest priority."

“You have in front of you the most important bill dedicated to public education, PreK through 12 education, that you’ll hear this session."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.