Montana can do a lot to improve access to quality childhood education for Montana families

Yesterday, we previewed some of the findings that came out of the state’s recent needs assessment of Montana’s early childhood education system. This report also provided a whopping 85 recommendations to the state on ways to improve our early childhood education system.

Recommendations are broken out into six categories: expanding access; improving quality of programs; addressing growing workforce shortages; improving coordination among programs; providing meaningful families engagement; and addressing governance and system issues. Here are a few highlights.

Expanding the number of early childhood education providers. Demand for early childhood care and education well exceeds the supply, and the state must take a more proactive approach to support new and continuing child care providers. The needs assessment identifies several ideas, including increasing payments provided to child care providers, particularly for infant care, providing start-up grants for those establishing child care centers, and considering adjustments to regulations that could help support after hour care. The needs assessment also discusses ways to support child care workers, including utilizing apprenticeship programs, improved training programs, and looking at ways to increase wages and compensation “more consistently across the birth to elementary continuum.”

Expand eligibility for child care subsidies and outreach to families struggling to afford child care and education. Far too many families are struggling to afford child care, and the state’s subsidy program can be better utilized to reach families in need. The needs assessment recommends the state streamline the current application and eligibility process for families applying for Best Beginnings scholarship. The state can also look to increase eligibility levels to the federally allowable limit, expanding access to support for many more working families. For example, Montana limits eligibility for a family of four with annual income below $37,650. The federal eligibility limit would allow a family of four with income below $61,874 to qualify for child care assistance.

Reform licensing requirements to improve quality and access. Many families seeking child care services are unaware that some programs are licensed through the state and some, primarily those considered preschool and not child care, are not. The needs assessment recommends the state consider ways to expand licensure requirements for all providers, while also finding ways to streamline licensure with other programs, including the STARS to Quality program and federally-regulated programs like Head Start.

One of the clearest recommendations to the state to address a lack of supply and a growing need. Montana must invest in early childhood education, a step that nearly every state in the country has taken.

The early childhood system needs assessment establishes a roadmap for how Montana can improve child care and education to ensure all Montana families have affordable access to quality care. We hope policymakers will take a close look and move quickly to implement recommendations.

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