BILLINGS - About 50 Republican legislators implored Montana’s congressional delegation to reject $40 million in federal preschool grant funding in an August letter.
The move left Gov. Steve Bullock literally throwing up his hands while speaking to teachers recently. Bullock pushed a failed state-funded preschool initiative this fall.
He joked that he was pretty sure Republican legislators hated him, not 4-year-olds, when they refused to add a $37 million proposal to fund a 4-year-old preschool program in the state budget while hammering out a deal in April.
After seeing the letter, “I start to worry that some of them might hate 4-year-olds too,” he said.
The letter argues that the “creation of government-provided ‘free’ preschools will most certainly drive existing private preschools from the market.” Montana is one of only six states without any state investment in preschool programs.
More than half of the signatories actually voted to fund the grant on a state and local level last spring in a wide-ranging spending bill.
Preschool Development Grants are part of $226 million in federal funds awarded in December to 18 states. In Montana, $10 million a year in optional funding is available to 21 communities to expand or establish preschool programs for four years. Families of eligible students must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“Those aren’t the same students who are paying for private preschool,” said Emilie Ritter Saunders, an Office of Public Instruction spokeswoman.
Billings Sen. Elsie Arntzen, a retired teacher who is running for superintendent of public instruction, said she signed the letter in part because of concerns about the long-term sustainability of programs built using grant funding.
“There may not be funding that’s going to be out there” in the future, she said. “Do we go back to our taxpayers, when it didn’t begin with them?”
The grant program, she said, “was more top down that bottom up.”
The letter from legislators ripped the quality of rules attached to the grant, calling them “insulting to the private providers who currently, and admirably, provide this service to willing parents.” Grant recipients must adhere to state school rules in addition to any federal rules, according to OPI.
“We have quality preschools already there,” said Rep. Alan Redfield of Livingston, which is in line to receive grant money. He also said that preschools can over-expand.
“Parents have some responsibility,” he said.
Schools had concerns about not having physical space to accommodate the optional program, Redfield said.
Several other signatories didn’t respond to phone messages, including members of party leadership in both houses.
Research on the effect of publicly funded preschool on private providers isn’t conclusive. One study found that private programs increased in Georgia and held steady in Oklahoma as publicly funded programs were rolled out. Total enrollment in preschool rose significantly in both states. The study notes that different funding mechanisms, geographic characteristics, differences in existing providers and other variables can make comparisons difficult from state to state.
“It’s not going to destroy the structure for pre-K,” said Bullock of public funding.
Other anecdotal accounts, especially in Missouri, detail the closure of private providers after the launch of publicly funded programs.
However, the letter may be moot. While an education bill passed by the U.S. Senate continues the grant program, a spending bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee does not fund the program.
Effectively, the state could have the financial rug pulled out from under it, said U.S. Sen Jon Tester during a visit to the state’s teacher conference Thursday.
“It’s critically important that if we’re going to put forth programs at the federal level that we’re going to fund them,” he said.
Redfield said part of his motivation was fiscal, not policy-based.
“Look at the debt that we have,” he said. “How do we pay that off?”
Representatives from Sen. Steve Daines’ and Rep. Ryan Zinke’s offices confirmed that they received the letter and emphasized local control in brief, emailed statements.
“Sen. Daines understands the importance of strengthening our education system and shares the goals of improving early-childhood education,” a statement said. “However, he is concerned that current federal initiatives have failed to close the long-term achievement gap between many students.”
Tester blasted the signatories in an emailed statement.
“Unfortunately, there are folks who don’t think our kids are worth it and would rather privatize education, making it only accessible to those who can easily afford it.”