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Mountain West Lags Behind The Nation On Pre-K

State-funded pre-k is coming up in the Mountain West. More states than ever are funding programs across the country. But of the handful that don't, three are in our region.

Bruce Atchison is the director of early learning for the Denver-based non-profit Education Commission of the States. He said Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have some free early childhood education — funded by a mixture of federal and private dollars — but access is more limited.

Montana's Democratic Governor Steve Bullock wants to change that; in his state at least. He's secured $6 million to pilot a pre-k program and plans to ask the Republican-dominated legislature for more money next year.

Atchison said across the country state lawmakers have had success working across the aisle to fund pre-k because the evidence that it's a good idea is strong.

"We know children who have high-quality pre-k experiences are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to go to college, more likely to get a real job and pay taxes," said Atchison. "We have longitudinal studies that show this."

A task force convened by Wyoming's outgoing governor identified pre-k as part of a strategy to improve the state's economy. But it's up to the legislature to approve any funds and so far it's not been willing do that. Meanwhile, in Idaho, legislation has come before state lawmakers and failed year after year.

The biggest argument against state funding that Atchison hears from the Republican-dominated legislatures in those states is one of budget constraints.

"Another thing that I have heard at times is this is not the role of state government to be funding children this young." Atchison says lawmakers say: "That's the role of the family, not government to be subsidizing children going to pre-k programs."

Atchison said research shows that pre-k is a smart investment, most notably because it can reduce the need for special education later in a child's life. Montana's Democratic Governor Steve Bullock plans to push for pre-k funding during the 2019 legislative session.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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