Montana in midst of expanding quality preschool

Missoulian Editorial – June 13, 2017

Working parents of young children pay dearly for child care in Montana. A recent analysis from the Montana Budget and Policy Center pegged the annual average cost of full-time care for a 4-year-old at nearly $8,000 a year.

Low-income families all too often find high-quality preschools out of reach; regardless of income, those who live in Montana’s most rural communities have similarly limited options.

So we should all applaud Montana’s recent progress on expanding quality preschool programs. Hopefully, these first shaky steps will lead to more stable footing that will soon allow Montana’s preschools to be off and running.

Gov. Steve Bullock has been advocating for a universal preschool program in Montana for several years now. His advocacy is based on solid evidence that good programs better position children for a lifetime of success, and drastically improve outcomes for at-risk children in particular. States that have made the investment in universal preschool have seen higher school attendance and graduation rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, lower violent crime rates and a host of other factors linked to quality preschool. Overall, every dollar spent on high-quality preschool saves $7 down the line.

Despite strong, widespread support from education experts, child and family agencies, the business community and others, Bullock’s proposal to launch a preschool program in Montana died in committee during the 2017 session. That plan, which was scaled back from earlier proposals, would have dedicated $12 million for grants to preschools that met education standards and served parents earning less than double the federal poverty level (about $49,000 a year for a family of four).

It turns out, fortunately, that legislators were willing to negotiate and eventually pass a bill to expand access to preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds. However, the expansion is only funded as a two-year pilot project that will be up for review in 2019 – leaving scant time to demonstrate its effectiveness.

And it’s being funded through a “temporary hospital community benefit assessment” – a fancy term for a temporary tax – on Montana’s 14 largest hospitals. There’s really no good reason why the hospitals should be on the hook for preschool expansion in Montana, except that their administrators recognized just how important and beneficial such programs are, and stepped up to make it happen when it looked like Montana’s legislators weren’t going to.

In exchange, hospitals received legislative support for a higher reimbursement rate for federal Medicaid, a move that could free up to $212 million in federal money for the hospitals through 2019. In the meantime, they will kick in $6 million, or $3 million each year for two years, to expand an existing program that awards grants to private providers. It’s called Best Beginnings Stars to Quality, and it’s run by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The department rates participating providers and gives awards to those who improve their performance. It’s entirely voluntary.

The expanded funding means the state is now in a position to offer competitive grants of up to $150,000, according to the Governor’s Office. Childcare providers serving 4-year-olds, including private preschools, public schools, Head Start and community-based providers, are being invited to apply at through July 10. The hope is to have the pilot programs in place by the time the school year resumes this fall.

The larger goal, of course, is to demonstrate that such program are effective and worth the investment of public dollars – so that the 2019 Legislature will do what previous legislatures should have done already, and dedicate public funding for a stable, long-term preschool program to ensure Montana’s youngest at-risk children get the best possible start in life.

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