HELENA — A bill entering the state House of Representatives on Monday would create a voluntary preschool program for 4-year-olds from lower income families.
House Bill 563, or the Montana Preschool Grant Program, would give children who qualify access to what Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, says is high-quality preschool education.
“This is not baby-sitting, this is not day care, this is with a qualified teacher who has a background in early childhood,” she said.
It would cost the state about $6 million a year. The money would come from the state’s general fund and give grants to school districts, which Kelker says they could use to either provide the service themselves, or work with pre-existing programs, like Head Start.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock says Montana is one of six states that does not provide state funding for pre-K education.
Bullock unveiled a budget proposal in November that called for $12 million to launch a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, which is a scaled-down version of his proposed $37 million “Early Edge” program that the Legislature rejected in 2014.
The funds would allow school districts, Head Start programs, and high-quality preschool providers to offer preschool for 4-year-old kids at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
Bullock says he’s taking a page from Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program. That state’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education Jeana Ross said its program serves a quarter of their 4-year-olds, and gets more than $60 million a year in state funding.
Chair of the House Education Committee Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, said the price tag of House Bill 563 is one concern of his. He also says in general, these types of programs could limit private schools that already teach preschool.
“I don’t want to hurt private providers that are providing this education now to people to fund a state program on top of that,” he said.
Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, who serves as Senate majority leader, said he was doubtful early education would make the final cut.
“We’re having trouble with the budget we have now without adding $12 million,” he said, adding that “before we launch down another track we’re working hard to do what needs to be done before doing anything news.”
To qualify for the program under the bill, families would need to be below 200 percent of the poverty level. Kelker says for a family of four, that would be about $49,000 a year.
The House Education Committee will hear the bill Monday afternoon.
Tribune Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this story. The UM Legislative News Service is a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, t