More than a dozen preschool providers around Montana have been left in an uncertain position, after the Montana Legislature adjourned without approving a proposal to extend state preschool funding.
In 2017, state lawmakers approved $6 million in funding, as a two-year pilot program to expand access to preschool in the state. 18 public and private providers eventually received grants through the STARS Preschool program.
The Helena School District used the money to start a 16-student Montessori preschool class at Hawthorne Elementary School. In the East Helena School District, the grant went toward an 18-seat class at Eastgate Elementary.
East Helena Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said he was impressed with how the preschool class got kids school-ready.
“It’s a program that actually prepares kids – just gets that sponge oriented right so that it’s ready to accept knowledge and the education that we’re providing in kindergarten, first, second, third, all the way through the grades,” he said.
Helena Superintendent Tyler Ream said kids who go to pre-kindergarten can improve their academic trajectory for years after.
“I see it in many ways as an intervention,” he said.
State preschool funding became a major issue during this year’s legislative session. Gov. Steve Bullock said investing in preschool was one of his top priorities for the session. Until the last day of the session, lawmakers made proposals to include that funding. But in the end, they couldn’t reach an agreement to either create a permanent funding plan or extend STARS Preschool funding.
Both Ream and Whitmoyer said, without state money, they had no way of continuing their new preschool classes.
“If we had the ability to do it before, we wouldn’t have needed the STARS Preschool money,” Ream said.
“We looked at every conceivable rock we could turn over to come up with funding to do this,” said Whitmoyer. “It’s that important.”
The districts will maintain other pre-K programs funded from other sources. Ream said Helena Public Schools offers several programs, some in partnership with Rocky Mountain Development Council, to serve specific populations. Whitmoyer said East Helena Public Schools will continue an “age-exempt kindergarten” class for four-year-olds with special circumstances.
But Ream said it was disappointing for the STARS Preschool funding to expire.
“Our kids were given a leg up by this opportunity, and that’s not going to continue,” he said.
Whitmoyer said he’s hopeful lawmakers will eventually be able to come up with a plan to again provide preschool funding.
“They’ll look, they’ll talk, they’ll discuss it, and they’ll come back with a better idea next session,” he said. “I’m pretty confident in that.”
There was a third STARS Preschool grant recipient in Lewis and Clark County which will not be shutting down. ABC Academy Preschool, a private provider in Helena, received money to fund 12 spots for students. Tasha Van Nice, the lead teacher and director, said they will keep the spots open, but they will return to a paid model. She said what they offer will depend on what fits for the families they work with.
“We’re going to be flexible,” she said.
Van Nice said the STARS Preschool program gave her and her coworkers opportunities for professional development and support. She said she was glad the program had provided greater access to different models of preschool.
“Families were able to have a choice,” she said.