A new proposal at the Montana Legislature would set aside $11 million for a new preschool program beginning in 2020.
More immediately, the plan would offer a lifeline to programs funded by federal preschool development grants and the state STARS program.
It's all coming amid a mad dash to move bills between chambers before an April 1 deadline. And despite preschool becoming a signature issue for Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock, it's carried by a Republican, Rep. Eric Moore of Miles City.
The bill, House Bill 755, was introduced Monday, the last day possible on the legislative calendar. From there, it has one week to clear the Senate and migrate to the House. It's scheduled for a Wednesday hearing in the House Education Committee, which it needs to pass before the full House gets a chance to vote on it.
The bill would represent a significant expansion of publicly funded preschool compared to the two-year, $6 million STARS program passed in 2017.
Like that program, Moore's concept would include private and public providers, including public schools and Head Start programs. It would create a new state department of early childhood headed by a director in charge of creating rules for preschool classrooms in the new state program, the Montana School-Ready Preschool Program.
Moore framed the program as "a true school choice model... If it’s not a school choice model, I'm not interested.”
Participation for any public or private entity would be voluntary, and private programs are required to be "nonsectarian."
Moore hasn't been a vocal preschool proponent in the past. This is the first bill he's carried on the topic.
“I’ve done the research, I’ve talked to kindergarten teachers,” he said. “It is about abcs and 123s… but it’s more about soft skills.”
Most research shows that high-quality preschool programs are an effective educational strategy, especially for children from low-income families who are more likely to have lower graduation rates and test scores, and that those children have improved social-emotional outcomes.
The proposal also contains a nod to those skeptical of the government's role in early childhood education.
The program would "in no way limit the existing ability of school districts, private providers, or Head Start grantees from providing preschool or impede parental choice in determining how best to educate their children."
Moore said that he drew heavily from Alabama's preschool model, which, “number one is a red state, number two scores very highly in performance metrics.”
The bill appears to expand a current provision that allows schools to receive half of the funding they would for a K-12 student, but only for those in "exceptional circumstances." Moore's bill would open that funding stream up to the School-Ready program.
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Next school year, the new department of early childhood would receive $400,000 for operations. But the School-Ready program wouldn't launch until 2020, when $11 million would be set aside for distribution to participating preschool programs. The funding would become part of the BASE education budget, and not need a new bill outside of the state budget for renewal each year.
Moore said he wouldn't be opposed to an amendment with some kind of funding sunset, but that it needed to be longer than a two-year window.
"It’s going to take some investment and some dedication with (providers)," he said. "They’ve got to have some assurance that this isn’t going to go away in two years.”
Critical for currently operating preschool programs built with public money, $2 million would go toward STARS programs to help them bridge the gap before School-Ready funding is available.
About $3 million would go toward preschool programs that have received money from the federal Preschool Development Grant, which pumped $40 million into Montana over four years but expires this school year.
Such programs appear well-suited to apply for the School-Ready program. While the bill draft leaves final rules about the program at the discretion of the new early childhood director, the language uses the phrase "high quality" repeatedly. STARS programs and federal grant recipients had to meet federal quality standards.
If Moore, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, can rally Republicans to support his bill, it would bridge what has often been a party-line divide on preschool in Montana.
Most recently, a preschool proposal from Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Great Falls Democrat, has languished after a hearing before the House Education Committee. The committee chair, Rep. Seth Berglee, a Joliet Republican, hasn't brought it forward for action.
Republicans also stripped out money for preschool in the state budget that was recommended by Gov. Steve Bullock. Rep. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican who chaired the subcommittee that crafted the education section of the budget, said that the money was removed largely because there was no bill passed creating a preschool program.
Before the STARS program, Montana was one of only a few states in the nation that didn't publicly fund preschool.
“I’m surprised that it has been such a push back at the legislature,” Moore said, citing public preschool programs in "blood red" states like Alabama. He speculated that Bullock's "passionate" advocacy for the topic has inspired some resistance among Republicans.
He said that he worked with Bullock's office about technical details of the bill, but hasn't asked about whether or not Bullock would sign the bill.
“I would never want to speak for the Governor," Moore said. "I think he is supportive of pre-K very much so.”
Moore said that he wasn't worried about the April 1 transmittal deadline, and that Speaker of the House Greg Hertz has assured him that the bill will get a vote Thursday or Friday in the full house, assuming it passes committee.
“We can make it,” Moore said.