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Every Montana child should have access to a pre-kindergarten program, and Gov. Steve Bullock wants a program in place by September 2015.

“This is really about our overall state,” Bullock said during the Business Leaders’ Summit on Early Childhood Education in Missoula on Wednesday.

Children who enter kindergarten prepared are more likely to graduate from high school, lead healthy lives and contribute more tax dollars, benefitting society overall in lower health care and court system costs, Bullock said.

Every dollar invested in an early childhood program will have a significant return for both children, who will be more likely to succeed and live healthy lives, and for Montana businesses, which will have healthier, more productive workers, the governor said.

A report by the Montana Budget and Policy Center found that a universal program would begin paying for itself in nine years and cost $88 million a year to run once fully phased in. By 2050, the costs are estimated at $212 million, far less than the $1.7 billion in anticipated benefits.

In addition to financial benefits, pre-K programs are known to provide a positive boost for kids before 90 percent of their brains are developed by the age of 5.

A pre-K program for children ages 4 to 5 would provide children with education by licensed teachers in small class sizes and prepare them for K-12 schooling, while allowing flexibility for working families. Enrollment would be voluntary, Bullock said.

“I certainly envision it being available to all Montana children,” he said, adding that several communities, including Great Falls and Hamilton, already have programs in place.

Missoula County Public Schools also has a pre-K program for children with special needs, which serves just over 100 kids. A universal program likely would impact upward of 600 kids, said Alex Apostle, MCPS superintendent.

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Seeing the business community attend the summit to learn about what a program could do for Montana was encouraging, Apostle said.

“I believe that early childhood education is essential in leveling the playing field for all children of all walks of life. It’s long overdue and I appreciate the emphasis that Gov. Bullock and the Washington Foundation, and of course our community, are placing on this very important endeavor,” Apostle said.

A quality program would help children reach the benchmark of reading at grade level by at least third grade, which in turn drastically improves their likelihood of graduating from high school, he said.

As it stands now, though, the district couldn’t afford to foot the bill for such a program out of its general fund, Apostle said.

“We would definitely need support from the state in order to move forward on this,” he said.

To Brent Campbell, president and CEO of WGM Group Inc., early childhood education is long overdue and he commended the governor and the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation’s support of creating a statewide program.

“I think we need to be looking at how we get this accomplished,” said Campbell, who also serves as president of the Missoula Downtown Association and is on the Missoula Economic Partnership board and the governor’s economic development advisory board.

Improved education would mean an improved workforce, which would benefit existing business and help attract new ones, he said.

“The first thing they look at is the quality of our workforce and the quality of the education system,” he said about businesses considering Montana for a location.

The business community can help support a pre-K program by telling legislators what they see as the long-term payoffs, Campbell said.

“It’s going to take broad support from the Legislature across the state to get the governor’s plan passed,” he said.

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Pre-K programs do improve children’s cognitive skills, but they also teach non-cognitive skills such as grit, optimism and self-control, which are ultimately vital to life success, Paul Tough told Wednesday’s summit attendees.

Tough, best-selling author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” said that children who receive interventions experience mild improvement in cognitive skills, but the significant impact is in non-cognitive areas.

For example, children who are prepared for kindergarten are less likely to be arrested, divorced or recipients of welfare, or to have health issues such as heart disease, obesity and hypertension. Hence, social costs are lowered and kids are put on more level playing fields with other children who are from less stressful home settings, Tough said.

The idea of early education has caught on in recent years, he said.

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“And what is striking to me is that in many of these communities is often the business people who embrace early childhood as a priority well before the politicians do. This is an issue that is subverting a lot of the traditional left and right, democrat and republican divides,” he said.

Another important time for building non-cognitive traits is during adolescence, Tough said.

“It is in adolescence that young people are able to really reflect on their own thought processes,” he said.

Overcoming adversity is key to developing character. However, repeated and relentless challenges aren’t beneficial, Tough said.

Disadvantaged kids who are successful have two things in common – strong character traits and receiving help along the way, he said.

Summit attendees can be that help, Tough said, encouraging people to mentor kids and to support organizations and individuals’ work to create opportunities for kids from birth to college age.

It’s never too late to start helping kids, but work with older kids often is costly and isn’t always effective, he said.

“A much better, cheaper, smarter, more efficient way to accomplish this goal is to start early,” Tough said.

Creating a system that offers families good early education options and help that follows them through K-12 education, would mean success stories for disadvantaged kids would no longer be rare, he said.

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Instituting a pre-K program can’t wait and Montana already is behind the majority of other states, Bullock said.

“We need to look at what 42 other states have already done,” he said, adding that business leaders stand to gain from such an investment and should promote its creation.

Other suggested things businesses can do to support healthy child development included: accommodate breast-feeding mothers, set up pre-tax spending accounts for employees that can be used for child care, offer flex time benefits, encourage and support employee volunteering in programs that serve young kids, and support the expansion of preschools, Head Start, Early Head Start and other quality services for kids.

Bullock said he plans to unveil more details of what a universal pre-K program in Montana would look like and bring the idea before the 2015 Legislature.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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