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Students at Lockwood School's early kindergarten program are pictured in this 2017 file photo. 

An attempt to revive a preschool funding proposal failed Wednesday morning, only one day after opponents of the plan braced for its expected passage.

A proposed amendment for a companion bill to the state budget that would have resurrected a preschool program proposed by Rep. Eric Moore, a Miles City Republican, failed on a 4-2 vote. But another preschool amendment awaits in a meeting scheduled for Thursday, and more could come forward.

Wednesday morning's hearing was a free conference committee, where legislators have wide latitude to make both fiscal and policy. The companion bill, SB 352, underwent major changes with the proposed amendment.

That set the stage for a reversal of expectations from education advocates who speculated that SB 352 would become "too big to fail" and that its sweeping nature would ensure passage of the preschool program.

“Whatever is placed before them on early childhood education will pass,” said Montana School Boards Association executive director Lance Melton in a Tuesday conference call with school trustees from across the state, a prediction that didn't hold true.

MTSBA opposed several of the provisions in the amendment, which largely mirrors Moore's HB 755, a bill that was shot down in committee in March.

The program would create a new state department of early childhood to oversee private preschools and Head Start programs, funded with $3 million in 2020. Public school-based preschools would be supervised by the Office of Public Instruction and regulated by existing rules from the Board of Public Education, with $8 million in funding set aside for 2020.

In the intervening year, $2 million would help keep the STARS program — a pilot program for public preschool passed in 2017 — afloat, and $3 million would aid programs currently in their final year of funding from a federal grant.

The two programs are credited with adding more than 1,000 high-quality preschool slots. Several STARS programs said their classrooms would fold without new funding. Some programs aided by the federal grant said they planned for expiring funding and won't need deep cuts, while others are less certain.

Gov. Steve Bullock supported Moore's bill, as did Rep. Casey Schreiner, a Great Falls Democrat who carried an earlier Bullock-backed public preschool proposal that failed.

But several school advocacy groups opposed the bill because of its inclusion of public money for private programs and concerns about the creation of a new state agency.

“This looks like a mini step toward a parallel universe of private charter schools that would be paid for out of the public purse,” teacher's union president Eric Feaver said at Wednesday's committee, which allowed brief public comment on preschool.

Education groups did win some small concessions in Moore's amendment, like the removal of language affecting schools' ability to receive funding for preschool-lite programs.

Sen. Jon Sesso, a Butte Democrat who voted for Moore’s amendment, prepared a different amendment that would continue funding for the STARS preschool pilot program and offer state funding to programs that had received federal grant money worth $11 million over two years.

But the committee didn’t reconvene Wednesday, despite a false start at about noon and a later scheduled meeting that never materialized. It’s scheduled to meet Thursday morning.

Republican Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said the bill could be tied to the fate of a proposal to continue funding for STARS, which was passed in the 2017 session.

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That amendment, which would go onto a budget companion bill, was suggested Wednesday morning after another effort to graft a statewide preschool program onto the companion bill and create a new state agency was voted down. The committee taking up that companion bill delayed action on a STARS preschool vote until Thursday morning.

During the Tuesday call, Melton excoriated the use of free conference committees and companion bills to legislate large issues like preschool.

The process makes “a charade of a legislative session for 90 days,” he said, because it can be used to skirt legislative deadlines and rules — for example, the route that Moore's original preschool bill failed to get through.

Moore and Rep. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican who has helped spearhead preschool negotiations, defended the process.

Jones argued that late legislative haggling is inevitable.

“I would love a system that didn’t wait until the deadlines,” Jones said. “The sausage-making process is never pretty. Everybody always talks about how early they’re going have their ideas vetted, but in the end it’s the looming deadline that always causes things to finally come together.”

“It takes time. It takes a discussion. We have all 90 days, right? And day 88 is just as viable as day 43,” Moore said.

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Lee Montana's Holly Michels contributed to this report.

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