Montana is one of a handful of states that doesn’t publicly fund preschool. The last legislative session rejected two bills that tried to change this, shortly before the state’s preschool pilot project ended.
On a Wednesday morning at Eastgate Elementary School in East Helena, kids spill out of their classrooms and go outside for morning recess.
Inside, bins of Legos line the wall and a terrarium holds surprises.
"Yeah, that’s our bug house," says kindergarten teacher Kate Johnson. "We bring bugs off the playground and just keep them in there like grasshoppers and moths. Today we found a roly poly, which was very exciting."
Last year, Johnson taught preschool through the state-funded STARS Preschool program. The two-year pilot project served 300 four- and five-year-olds in 21 classrooms across the state.
Another 300 kids were turned away or put on a wait list.
“What we have seen in the years that we run a pre-K is the confidence the child has going into kindergarten. They go into kindergarten just ready. Just knowing that they can do it, knowing that they know some of the letters, how to act at school. So we really are happy with how the program has fostered a lot of confidence and just social and emotional learning,” says Johnson.
A state report showed a 21 percent overall increase in kindergarten readiness for kids who participated in STARS Preschool. And a large body of research shows kindergarten readiness affects third grade reading levels and graduation rates.
But the pilot project ended this summer and bills proposing public funding for preschool didn’t pass the 2019 Montana Legislative Session.
As a result, a lot of the participants in STARS have had to cut back their services.
Eastgate Principal Jill Miller says she has advocated for publicly funded preschool at several legislative sessions.
“When people speak against pre-K, the argument is that it’s not the school’s job or the government’s job to provide daycare. While I understand that narrow-minded thinking to a degree, as an educator, I look at what these kids are doing instead if they’re not receiving high-quality education,” says Miller.
Miller says a lot of families in East Helena can’t afford high-quality daycare or private preschool.
Head Start has a waiting list, and half of the students in school qualify for free or reduced meals.
“We’ve got the facility, we’ve got the staff to do it, but we still need the money to do it,” says Miller.
About five years ago, Eastgate used a local grant to start an age exception kindergarten program called Kinder-Cub. It enrolls four-year-olds as kindergarteners to receive state funding while giving kids the skills they need to be successful in school.
But Kinder-Cub only has 18 seats per year and it’s intended to serve kids who meet federal guidelines for free or reduced meals, are English learners, registered with a tribe or qualify for special education services.
STARS funding allowed them to open a second classroom to kids who didn’t meet those criteria and hire more staff like Kate Johnson. When the pilot project ended, Eastgate had to cut back on that second classroom and Kate shifted into a position with Kinder-Cub.
Principal Miller says she's hopeful the next legislative session could bring funding.
"There’s always hope, and hope burns eternal, as the saying goes," she says.
About 100 miles southeast of Eastgate is Human Resource Development Council, a non-profit Bozeman-based organization. Its early childhood education program serves over 180 three- to five-year-olds in Bozeman, Belgrade and Livingston.
HRDC Associate Director Sara Savage says the program didn’t participate in STARS but state funding would help it expand its services.
She says affordable, high-quality childhood care and education is a pressing need.
“And it’s not just those families that qualify based on income that we know have a growing need. It’s really all families in our community that are struggling,” says Savage.
HRDC serves kids through Head Start scholarships and tuition spots starting at $575 a month for full-day preschool.
“When you compare that to some local programs in our community where parents are spending over $1,000 a month to send their children to care and education, it’s a really affordable option at the same level of quality,” says Savage.
Savage says she regularly interacts with parents who are in a panic, trying to decide whether to pay for childcare or stay at home. She says some parents will even try to plan their conception around the availability of care, which can have a two-year waiting list.
“I also am having this conversation with my staff. I have so many bright, capable individuals who are working for me who are in a phase of their life where they’re starting families, and they’re not able to find care for their children, so they’re not returning to the workforce,” says Savage.
Savage says this can have a big economic and social impact on a community.
Early childhood care and education was identified as a challenge in HRDC’s last Community Needs Assessment in 2017. Now the organization is embarking on another to help direct what projects it works on for the next three years.
The first town hall will be September 23 in Belgrade at the public library.