This week, Hedges Elementary School moved its newest and youngest students into their own classroom, establishing the first public preschool site in Kalispell’s school district.
The free pilot program has room for 18 4-year-olds. With a teacher, a paraprofessional and a family engagement coordinator, the program runs five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., offering free breakfast and lunch alongside a curriculum used in local Head Start programs, which feature social and educational activities, nap time and recesses.
Hedges is the latest public school in Montana to add a preschool program, joining a growing yet contentious trend sweeping the state.
Montana is one of five states without state-funded preschool, yet efforts have gained momentum in recent years to provide free early education opportunities, particularly in communities with a significant percentage of lower-income families.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has advocated for preschool programs in high-needs communities alongside outgoing state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a fellow Democrat whose office oversees Montana’s public schools. Bullock, Juneau and other proponents say the programs help with early childhood development and reduce the burden on parents who struggle to cover the high costs of child care.
Yet the preschool push faces hurdles and criticism from GOP lawmakers and the incoming Republican superintendent of public instruction, who say the state can’t afford to pay for these programs nor should it.
Child care is one of the most costly items for a family budget, especially in Northwest Montana. This region ranks alongside south-central Montana for the highest average costs for child care providers in the state. For families in Flathead, Lake, Lincoln and Sanders counties, the average daily costs range from $20.69 for a legally certified provider up to $37.04 for a child care center, according to state labor statistics through January 2016.
The average annual cost for a 4-year-old in Montana was $7,436 for home-based care and $9,383 for center-based care, according to the latest report by Child Care Aware of America, a national group that advocates for high-quality child care. In Montana, child care consumes 47 percent of single parents’ incomes on average, the same report said. Married parents of two children in Montana who live at the poverty line — meaning they make roughly $16,020 annually — pay an average of 88 percent of their income for child care.
The Obama administration proposed a plan in 2013 for universal preschool for 4-year-old children from poor and working-class backgrounds, citing economic research touting the importance of early childhood education on a students’ success in later years. Children who don’t attend preschool are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Under Bullock, Montana has received $30 million of a $40 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services to develop preschool programs.
The first installment funded the initial development of programs a year ago in 16 communities across the state, including Libby, and allowed more than 650 children to gain free preschool through public school districts and Head Start, a nonprofit federally supported early education program for low-income families.
Last month, Bullock and Juneau announced the latest $10 million round of funding, which has helped the state expand the opportunities to 34 communities, including Kalispell, Troy, Eureka, and towns on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Montana’s investments in our high-needs preschool programs are already proving their value and helping our youngest learners to succeed early,” Bullock said when the latest grant award was announced in November. “It’s time now to make this same investment in communities across Montana so each of our children has access to the educational opportunities that they deserve.”
The federal grant funding covers initial classroom costs and operational expenses, as well as tuition for teachers to receive university degrees in early education. Kalispell School District is receiving $760,000 over the next two years to establish the preschool program. Northwest Montana Head Start, which has sites in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Eureka, is receiving $264,000.
“The goal is that we have students that leave this program that are ready for kindergarten and ready to be successful,” said Andrea Johnson, assistant superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools. “It’s helping these young students with that early education and to meet the unique developmental needs of children.”
It’s also trying to help families struggling to pay for the sizeable cost of child care, Johnson said.
Yet opponents say the grants are setting up Montana to have to pay for these programs in perpetuity once the federal funding ends, leaving the state to cover added costs that it can’t afford.
“It’s extremely important that our school districts have stable funding,” said Elsie Arntzen, a Republican senator from Billings who was elected in November as the next state superintendent of public instruction.
Arntzen was among 50 Republicans who signed a letter in fall of 2015 urging Bullock to reject the federal grant funding for public preschool.
This week, Arntzen told the Beacon that she remains very concerned about the temporary federal grant funding and the current revenue projections showing that Montana faces budget shortfalls in the coming years. Arntzen said school districts across the state are struggling with infrastructure issues, such as deferred maintenance and overcrowding issues, and can’t handle the burden of adding more students through preschool programs. She also termed Bullock’s pitch for public preschool as a “mandate” that forces communities to get onboard despite challenges, such as teacher shortages, or straight-up opposition.
“Montana does not work well with top-down mandates,” she said.
In his latest budget proposal, Bullock included $12 million for preschool programs. The budget plan also would sets aside $2.4 million for the Best Beginnings Stars to Quality Program, a rating system for early childhood programs.
State GOP leaders have responded in opposition, saying the funding should be redirected to address infrastructure needs first and foremost, particularly as the state faces a budget crunch from reduced revenues.
Mark Blasdel, a GOP state senator from Somers and the majority whip this session, told the Beacon he did not foresee the preschool proposal gaining any traction during the upcoming legislative session.
“It won’t go anywhere,” he said. “(The proposal has) fallen on deaf ears. A lot of our school systems are already overcrowded and already dealing with issues at the elementary levels. How can they take on another role?”
Other opponents say the addition of public preschools would hurt private businesses. In Flathead County, there are 60 licensed child care providers, not including state-recognized preschool programs and after-school sites, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services data.
Others are concerned that adding preschool only adds another burden onto young children.
“I feel bad about putting kids in a school situation too early. We’re just making the kids grow up too fast. Why does a 4-year-old have to do so much?” said Tammy Braseth, director of Smith Memorial Day Care Center in Kalispell, which was the state’s first licensed day care when it was established 50 years ago.
Others have noted the outsized cost of the programs. When Montana gained the federal grant funding to offer preschool to 650 students, it set an initial target cost at $3,500 per student. The actual cost after the first year was $14,069, according to a grant report submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
Emilie Ritter Saunders, communications director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction, said the heightened costs were a result of the “one-time expenditures” of establishing the preschools.
“In most cases, school districts were launching a program that had never been offered, which means creating brand-new classrooms. Many districts had to purchase all their classroom materials, such as tables, chairs, equipment and supplies,” she said. “Those startup costs were a one-time expenditure, and it will level off over time.”
She added, “We anticipate the cost-per-student to decrease over time.”
Ritter Saunders said 152 Montana teachers are enrolled in colleges and universities this year because of the federal grant helping establish preschool programs.
There is clear demand for preschool-aged child care in Kalispell and the Flathead Valley, which have among fastest population growth rates in Montana, with a noticeable uptick in younger children. With record enrollments at elementary schools across Kalispell, the school district recently received bond approval to build a new elementary school and upgrade its existing five sites.
At Northwest Montana Head Start in Kalispell, which offers free preschool programs to families that qualify by income, the classrooms brim with nearly 120 students. In Columbia Falls, another 66 are enrolled. Overall enrollment is 192 students this winter, which is maxed out. Head Start has a waiting list of 139 children, according to Executive Director Marcy Otten.
“If I had the money, I would open more classrooms because we have lots of kids we could serve in this valley,” Otten said.
“There’s so many families out there that can’t afford to put their kids in high-quality preschool programs because it’s just expensive. It’s a mortgage payment to have a kid in a preschool program.”
With the final $10 million in grant funding that Montana was awarded, Head Start could accommodate an additional 36 children, Otten said. If Montana turns down the final grant, Head Start’s waiting list would continue to grow, Otten said.