Early learner programs in Montana at risk

Early learner programs in Montana at risk

(Mont.) Preschool programs statewide are at risk of closing or scaling back services after lawmakers adjourned the 2019 session without renewing early learner grant funding.

The move came despite strong support for the spending by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who had included $30 million for state-funded preschool in his January budget.

Lawmakers had agreed to a pilot program in 2017 that provided $6 million to school districts that funded 18 programs of both public and private agencies.

Although some conservative lawmakers were reluctant to create another new state education program with costs that would likely escalate, a key political barrier were state employee unions that opposed using tax dollars to support privately delivered services.

Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, told the Great Falls Tribune late last month that their issue wasn’t preschool services.

“We did work with the governor’s people for quite some time trying to come up with a way that we could make this work,” he told the Tribune. “We favor pre-K education, we just are not in favor of privatizing it.”

Research has shown that participation in high-quality childcare or pre-K programs can have a number of positive benefits for children–though there is disagreement on how long lasting some advantages are.

In some studies, children enrolled in early learning childcare have demonstrated increased levels of academic achievement, cognitive and social-emotional development, and are better able to adjust to different social environments than their peers.

Others have found that children who participate for two years in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

With Republicans enjoying a wide majority in both Houses of the Montana Legislature, Bullock’s budget plan appeared in trouble early on.

In an effort to save the preschool funding, two bills were proposed that sought to fund early learning outside the budget—but neither excluded private providers and both died in committee.

The overall state budget won passage last month on a bipartisan basis. Bullock, a potential candidate for president in 2020, said he was disappointed a compromise over preschool money could not have been worked out.

“That's nearly 1,400 children across the state that won't be able to enter into a preschool classroom next year, who won't have the opportunity to build on the foundational skills needed to succeed in school and life,” Bullock said in a statement.

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