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Preschool

Instead of a Mother’s Day gift, this year Montana legislators gave moms of young children an added burden. But not just moms; entire communities will suffer the results of their failure to provide any funding for preschool.

Lawmakers left the parents of more than 1,400 young children twisting in the wind, unsure if their preschool will have the necessary resources to continue providing high-quality care and education to Montana’s neediest students. With declining enrollment, some teachers at these schools are likely to lose their jobs. Dozens of preschools in the state’s most rural communities are at risk of closing entirely.

These programs, which cater to the unique developmental needs of 4- and 5-year-olds, participate in Montana’s STARS Preschool program or have received preschool development grants in the past few years. But both those supports are ending thanks to legislators who opted not to continue funding them.

Some of these legislators opposed public support for preschool on the mistaken assumption that young children who don’t have access to preschool can simply stay at home with mom. But that’s just not true.

The parents of low-income families often hold low-paying jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, with odd hours that already make child care a challenge. In desperation, parents who cannot afford high-quality child care are forced to make substandard arrangements — often with an unlicensed family member, neighbor or friend. Montana’s most at-risk children start kindergarten at a distinct disadvantage, lacking basic school readiness skills such as social awareness, emotional regulation and the ability to follow directions.

Public schools must then pick up the slack and help their students get ready to learn — before they can actually begin to learn. This is a process that may take several years, depending on the needs of the child.

Gov. Steve Bullock has long championed a logical solution to this problem, a solution with mountains of evidence supporting its efficacy: public preschool programs. In 2015, Montana successfully secured a federal preschool development grant that created more than 1,000 preschool slots. It provided $10 million a year for four years.

The 2017 Montana Legislature kicked in an additional $6 million ¯ just $3 million a year for two years — in one-time funding for the STARS program, which received nearly 50 applications from public schools, private child care centers and in-home childcare providers, and awarded 17 grants to support 20 classrooms in its first year. That represents more than 300 new preschool slots.

The next year, the state Early Childhood Services Bureau released an evaluation report that showed a 21% overall increase in school readiness among children attending STARS Preschool participants. Assessment data show that the biggest growth occurred among children identified with “high needs.” These are children from low-income or homeless families. They might have teen parents, or their families might have mental or physical disabilities, or the students themselves might need special accommodations. Every dollar spent boosting the school readiness of these students saves $7 down the line in other public costs, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

Yet this year, the Legislature ignored the pleas of teachers and parents across the state and rejected every proposal to provide funding for preschool. The House Education Committee tabled a bill from Miles City Republican Rep. Eric Moore that would have provided $11 million over the biennium for preschool programs, and Republicans rejected subsequent attempts to add funding for preschool as amendments to a budget companion bill.

Montana is now one of only a handful of states in the nation that do not provide any public support for preschool. The others are Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming. States with public preschool programs not only see significant improvements in school readiness, they are eligible for federal funding that further boost the positive impacts of successful pre-K programs. In the latest round of grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 43 states shared a total of $241 million for preschool.

A few months ago, Montana did learn it will be awarded a $4.2 million grant as part of the second round of the original four-year federal grant. However, none of that money will go toward maintaining the preschool slots already created. Instead, it will be used to study the existing preschool system.

It’s a safe bet that research will yet again tell Montanans what we already know: that the state needs a program that supports high-quality preschool for children at risk of starting public school unprepared.

The lack of affordable preschool has ripple effects for working parents, their employers and their communities. A recent survey from the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce revealed that the sky-high costs of child care is forcing local workers to sacrifice their careers. With the average monthly child care bill exceeding $600 a month, child care is the fourth-highest expense for a young family.

The survey garnered some 550 responses from a wide cross-section of Missoula residents, and represented the highest response rate the chamber has ever seen. Nearly half of these respondents reported they had “scaled back or abandoned their career(s) … due to child care issues.” A 2019 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research notes that mothers, far more than fathers, are likely to be underemployed or unemployed as a direct result of having children.

Many women chose to stay at home or work fewer hours in order to spend more time caring for their children. But for too many mothers in Montana, it’s not a choice. They have to work to put food on the table and pay the rent, and that means they have to pay someone else to care for their children for the hours they are at work as well. But they, too, want their children to have access to enriching, high-quality child care, and a chance to start school on a level playing field with other students. 

This Mother’s Day, Montanans should contact their elected representatives and ask them what they intend to do to help prepare our youngest learners for a successful school career.

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