With the 2017 Legislature set to begin on Jan. 2, the old saying, “Don’t tell me your priorities; show me your budget,” comes to mind. The budget proposed by Gov. Steve Bullock invests in our future in a number of ways. Montana can have a solid physical infrastructure while at the same time investing in the next generation and providing early education for all Montana’s children. Montana remains one of five states without a statewide pre-K education program. We owe it to our working families to change this.
Some Republican lawmakers do not support pre-K, choosing instead to use the $14 million budgeted for early education as a short-term Band-Aid for Montana’s highways. This is a false choice. We can invest in infrastructure while at the same time providing a bright future for Montana’s next generation. Thanks to Bullock’s leadership, our state budget is in good health, unlike other states that are struggling to keep the lights on. We do not have to choose between educating our kids and repairing crumbling bridges. We can, and should, do both.
While there are so many wonderful things about living in Montana, the cost of quality day care for a four-year-old is not one of them. Montana is one of the most expensive states to find good placements for little ones. It averages between $600 and $800 per month in many places around the state — more than the cost of college tuition. This squeezes working families, many of whom are saddled with their own educational debt and pinching pennies to save for their child’s college tuition. Too many families find themselves in the bind of making just too much to qualify for Head Start or other help, but not enough to afford decent pre-K. We can do better.
Kids in early education see an immediate boost in literacy, spelling, and math that puts them months ahead of their counterparts. By the end of the second grade, kids with an early learning foundation see significantly better scores in math, comprehension and vocabulary. Fifth-graders with a pre-K foundation do much better in reading, math and science. These students continue to score better on tests and are 30 percent to 50 percent less likely to repeat a grade. They stay in school, graduate from high school, and become productive members of society.
Outdated studies falsely indicating the benefits of a quality pre-K education do not last past third grade have been disproven. A 2014 study by Nobel laureate economist James Heckman shows that students who received pre-K education were more likely to graduate high school, have higher IQs, experience better overall health, and less likely to be incarcerated than their peers who did not experience high-quality early learning programs. The rate of return on the public investment in pre-K education is 13 percent.
We do not want to take money away from our youngest learners for a short-term solution that fails to make positive long-term changes. Various funding sources, including bonding, exist to provide for Montana’s physical infrastructure, while at the same time setting the stage to provide Montana’s children with an early edge in life.
We can and should do both. Improving Montana is what all legislators, Democrats and Republicans, were elected to do. Working families across Montana depend on it.
-- Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, collaborated on this guest opinion with Democratic Reps. Nate McConnell, of Missoula; Casey Schreiner, of Great Falls; Laurie Bishop, of Livingston; and Jacob Bachmeier, of Havre.