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Montana Governor to Push for State's First Investment in Preschool

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock plans to ask for $37 million from the state legislature in the 2017 biennial budget to fund a voluntary, half-day, universal preschool program. 

Bullock, a Democrat, talked up the program—Early Edge Montana—during an Oct. 13 visit to preschools in Billings and Hardin.. Under his proposal, the money will be used to provide block grants to school districts, which will have the option of creating a new program themselves or partnering with private preschool providers.

"Our most important obligation is to the next generation of Montanans, to ensure they have more opportunities to succeed than we did," said Bullock in a press release. "It's time that Montana gives every 4-year-old access to high-quality, early-childhood education that will set them on a path to thrive through their educational career and beyond." 

Montana is currently one of eight states that does not have any state-funded preschool program; most of those states are in the Mountain West. According to the National Institute of Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, about 4,000 Montana children were enrolled in the federally-funded Head Start program in the 2012-13 school year; approximately 900 children received early-intervention services through federal special education funds. Montana applied for a Race to the Top early-learning challenge grant in the third round of that competition, but was not selected. 

Lawmakers interviewed by the Billings Gazette offered different views on the likelihood of Bullock's proposal passing the state legislature. 

"We have schools that can't recruit teachers because their salaries aren't high enough," said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. "If we're going to sign up for a new program with the potential for growth ... are we making the wisest investment that's to be made today?"

A leading Democratic lawmaker on education issues also said that while he supports the governor's plan, it won't be a "slam dunk" to get it through the Legislature, which is currently controlled by Republicans.

"I think the price tag is modest, but the state isn't all that flush," said Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula. "We're going to have to make some hard choices." 

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