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Montana One Step Closer to Offering Public Preschool

Montana, one of nine states with no state preschool program, is a step closer to offering publicly funded preschool to 4-year-olds after a vote by the state board of education last week.

The six-member board voted unanimously to approve rules for accrediting preschools that receive state funding. Right now, there are no such schools in Montana. Though the state subsidizes child care for some low-income families, it does not regulate or fund a preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

If a $37 million, two-year proposal by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, wins approval in the state legislature this spring, that could change.

Not likely, wrote the editors of The Billings Gazette on Wednesday. Bullock's proposal "will be a tough sell in a Legislature controlled by the GOP," the Gazette editorial reads. "Candidate responses printed in The Gazette Voter Guide in October indicated little support for Bullock's pre-K plan among Republicans."

Opinionators around the state have written against the idea, citing the principle that the government should not interfere in its citizens' personal lives, including the raising of young children.

"It now seems that parents can no longer be trusted to rear their young—a sad state of affairs to be sure," wrote Michael Gale in a letter to the editor of The Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, a small town in northern Montana. "We must now entrust them to our polished and shiny governmental education machine."

Despite such concerns, the state board of education received 481 oral and written comments in support of the new state standards for preschools and only 63 against, according to a story by Derek Brouwer for The Billings Gazette.

And though Montana doesn't have an operating state preschool program now, it has been taking steps toward it for the past few years, according to its 2013 State Preschool Report Card by NIEER. An early-childhood education advisory council was formed in 2011 to coordinate public services for young children. The state also has early-learning standards on record and has, twice now, applied for federal funds to support the launch of a public program.

Whether or not the state receives the still-pending $40 million Preschool Development Grant it applied for and which way the legislature votes on Bullock's proposal this spring will determine which steps, if any, Montana takes next. 

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