Supporters Rally in Helena as Lawmakers Weigh Preschool Plan

Bullock has included the early education initiative in his budget proposal

By LISA BAUMANN, Associated Press

HELENA — About 50 supporters told a legislative panel on Friday that Gov. Steve Bullock’s $37 million plan for public preschool is a worthy investment.

Supporters made up of mostly educators and parents told members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education that providing an option for preschool to Montana 4-year-olds would better prepare them for kindergarten and for life.

“High quality preschool programs close achievement gaps and raise graduation rates,” said Jill Miller, principal of Eastgate Elementary School in East Helena. “My kindergarten teachers will tell you their biggest hurdle is a child’s lack of exposure to learning opportunities. East Helena is ready to put this in place.”

Under the program dubbed Early Edge, grants would be available to public school districts_$30,000 for every 10 students— to create or expand preschool programs. If they choose to seek grant money, school districts could create their own preschool program, partner with an existing one or combine the two, said Shannon O’Brien, Bullock’s policy adviser for education.

Bullock has included the initiative in his budget proposal.

Crystal Burns, principal at the private Missoula Community School, said the cost of preschool is a barrier for parents and she doesn’t think implementing public preschool will be bad for her business. “I personally do not fear a future with public preschool,” she said.

Kelly Smith of Great Falls said she’s a parent of three boys who didn’t qualify for low-income preschool programs and couldn’t afford private schools.

“We wanted more than a day care. We made too much for Head Start and not enough for private school,” Smith said, adding she was fortunate to get her son into the limited public preschool program in Great Falls.

In more than two hours of testimony, only Lea Moore with Let Me Shine Preschool expressed concerns that proposed accreditation standards would cause their school to close.

“I have no desire to go back for another two-year degree,” the Miles City teacher said. “After 21 years of private preschool, we do have concerns that the governor’s proposal will dim the lights of Let Me Shine.”

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said Montana colleges and universities are ready to meet the needs of teachers with courses they would need online and offered in seven locations around the state. “As my daughter would say, we got this one covered,” Christian said.

Bruce Atchison, director of the Early Learning Institute at Education Commission of the States, said the institute released the results of a study earlier this week that show Montana is now one of only six states without any state investment in preschool programs.

Early Edge faces an uphill climb in the Republican-controlled Legislature, with Republican lawmakers questioning the cost and long-term benefits of early childhood education.

Bullock attended an Early Edge rally outside the Capitol after the committee meeting.

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