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Seven preschool programs in western Montana received grants in 2017, including Lolo, Kalispell, Alberton, Polson, Marion, Ronan and Troy.

Only six states provide no perennial public funding for preschool programs: Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. And, of course, Montana.

However, Montana was able to launch a pilot program after the 2017 legislative session thanks to the generous support of the business community — specifically, 14 hospitals that offered to cover the $6 million cost in exchange for legislative support for a higher federal Medicaid reimbursement rate.

Now, that pilot program is yielding measurable results that demonstrate the tremendous positive impact of high-quality preschool programs. These outcomes square with data from other states with well-established preschool programs of their own, and show that publicly funded preschool would work in Montana.

Unfortunately, many of Montana’s legislators appear poised to ignore this evidence. Preschool is just not a priority for Republican leadership this session.

It’s up to Montana’s business community to once again step up and make their support for preschool known. Compared to previous sessions, business leaders have been far too quiet, and time is running out.

The need for quality preschool is well documented in Montana, particularly in rural areas. According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center in 2017, the annual average cost of full-time care for a 4-year-old in Montana is nearly $8,000 a year. Despite the relatively high costs, there is a persistent lack of trained preschool teachers and waiting lists can extend so long, children are ready to start kindergarten before they are admitted to preschool.

The case for dedicating public funds is also well established, with several states finding that every dollar spent on high-quality preschool, $7 in other public costs are saved later on, again according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

That’s why public preschool has long been a major policy goal of Gov. Steve Bullock. In 2015, he proposed the Early Edge Montana plan, at a cost of $37 million over two years, that would have allowed up to half the state’s 4-year-olds to attend preschool.

The ambitious plan was loudly applauded by business leaders throughout the state, from large companies with multiple locations to small businesses with only a handful of employees. Indeed, several of them banded together to form Early Edge Action, a 501(c)(4) coalition to advocate for the governor’s plan.

Their support was driven primarily by growing recognition of the need to attract and retain employees in an increasingly competitive workforce. The state Department of Labor and Industry noted that Montana has one of the fastest-aging populations in the nation, with at least one in four members of the workforce, or 137,000 people, age 55 or older. Meanwhile, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds entering the workforce totaled only 113,000 – not enough to replace the growing rate of retirements.

Businesses – and their employees – are attracted to states that offer high-quality education. Unfortunately, lacking sufficient preschool options, Montana comes up short for families with young children.

On the other hand, Montana has been fortunate in securing local business support and federal funding to expand preschool.

After the 2015 legislative session, in which the Legislature turned down Bullock’s proposal, the state landed a $40 million federal grant to develop more than 1,000 new slots for preschoolers. That grant ends this year, but will be supplemented by a new one-year preschool grant, for $4.2 million. The new money will be used solely for research and training, and won’t help create any new preschool slots.

In 2017, the Legislature approved a pilot preschool program, paid for by 14 of Montana’s largest hospitals, that established 17 new preschools in 16 communities, including Ronan and Pablo in Lake County, which received two $150,000 grants to support preschool at their elementary schools. Across the state, the program has served more than 300 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers.

Recent assessment data shows the program has resulted in a 21 percent increase in school readiness. That’s especially significant given that 61 percent of the children enrolled in the program have one or more “high needs.” Additionally, a family survey showed that a whopping 97 percent of families felt engaged with the program and their child’s education, and a teacher survey showed that 94 percent were offered effective means to grow professionally.

The temporary hospital tax assessment that paid for the program ends this year, meaning Montana will have to find a new way to pay for preschool if it is going to continue.

Bullock’s budget proposal included $30 million to establish a voluntary preschool program that would provide preschool to about half the state’s 4-year-olds. A more modest $8 million request would merely continue the pilot program, allowing it to expand to 30 classrooms and cover more than 400 students.

Last month, Bullock noted during a visit with about 40 members of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Missoula group that the idea of expanding preschool still enjoys strong support in the business community.

If that’s true, it’s up to business leaders to reach out to their state senators and representatives, and express support for prioritizing preschool – and for raising revenues to pay for it.

Republican leaders have been straightforward in their opposition to any new revenue increases, be they taxes, fees or other options. But it’s poor legislating to simply say “no” to every idea. They should be willing to at least consider some of them, evaluating them on their merits and perhaps finding some middle ground.

For instance, if they are not willing to look at raising tobacco taxes, they should at least extend the tax to cover vaping products. And they certainly ought to look at updating the fee paid by investment advisers that want to do business in Montana, which, as Bullock explained to the Missoulian editorial board last fall, was set at $50 in 1982 and hasn’t changed since. Doubling the fee to $100 would bring it closer to what other states charge, and raise about $12 million for the biennium.

Republican legislators are unlikely to be persuaded of a need to raise revenue by Governor Bullock, a Democrat. But they will listen to Montana entrepreneurs, small businesses and leaders of large companies if they say they are willing to shoulder a bit more of the burden in acknowledgement of the larger benefits.

Montana’s business community should unite in making the case to reluctant legislators to find a good way to fund preschool.

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