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Dozens of 4-year-olds in Billings, Lockwood and Shepherd are enrolled in high-quality preschools as part of Montana’s first effort to fund this early childhood education.

The state STARS program provided grants for pilot projects in a variety of settings. For example, there’s Kountry Kare, a private preschool in Shepherd that has 20 students. Lockwood Public Schools received state grants that allowed it to expand its preschool to more students and to offer them full-day sessions five days a week. Head Start in Billings received state funds to support two Explorers Academy classrooms.

In a series of recent articles, Gazette education reporter Matt Hoffman told the story of these high-quality preschool programs. It’s too early to assign a final grade to the STARS program, but research confirms the lifelong benefits of ensuring that youngsters start kindergarten ready to learn.

STARS grants require programs to have no more than 10 students per teacher, use a research-based curriculum that aligns with state standards for early learning and to run at least 28 hours per week. Public schools receiving the grants must have state-licensed teachers. Private schools’ teachers must have a bachelor’s degree with 20 early childhood credits.

Much of the payoff for high-quality preschool is seen over many years because students were better prepared for kindergarten and their entire academic career. Some progress is measurable after even part of a year in high quality preschool. For example, after Billings Head Start used a federal grant to add a classroom, student assessments at the start of class in September showed most students had skills below national expectations for language, cognition, social-emotional acuity, literacy and math. About half the student didn’t meet physical development expectations. A winter assessment showed significant growth for the same students: Most students met most expectations. Several had improved in literacy and math, but several remained below expectations on those two academic areas.

Statewide, 62 percent of students enrolled through STARS grants are considered “high needs” because of disability or because their families are homeless, Native American or headed by a teen parent.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s push for the state to invest in preschool met stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers in past sessions. In the 2017 session, much of the opposition to preschool had subsided, except for cost concerns.

Can state-funded preschool work in rural Montana? Ask Red Lodge.

Good preschool isn’t cheap. In 2017, lawmakers authorized $6 million in preschool pilot grants for the next two years. None of the money came from the general fund. Instead, the state imposed a new assessment on several of the state’s largest hospitals. Money from those hospitals made the grants possible.

Nationwide, 1.5 million children are enrolled in state-funded preschools – including about 32 percent of 4-year-olds. Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin enroll more than 60 percent of their 4-year-olds in state preschool, according to Education Week. Until this year, Montana enrolled zero kids in state-funded preschool.

Many more Montana families would choose to enroll their children — if a preschool they trust is available and affordable. The state’s role should be to ensure that parents can make informed decisions about preschool choices. Montana doesn’t license preschools. However, the STARS programs are required to meet high standards that would be ideal for all Montana students.

The state also has an important role to play in promoting availability and affordability of preschool programs. Even without funding specifically for preschool, some Montana public schools have scraped together the money or obtained federal grants for limited preschool programs. Churches, nonprofit organizations and small businesses operate preschools in many Montana communities, giving parents choices.

However, Montana lags most other states in preschool enrollment. Until this year, Montana was one of very few states that put none of its money into preschools.

Now that Montana has made a small start in closing that preschool gap, we call on Bullock and legislators to keep the momentum going: Help give all Montana parents of preschoolers good, affordable choices.

—The Billings Gazette

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