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Billings Gazette education reporter Matt Hoffman has been in preschools for the past two years. So has Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and some state lawmakers. These adults are paying attention to early learning because quality preschool raises the probability of success throughout school, including boosting high school graduation rates and job and career readiness.

"Preschool attendance ranks among the strongest success factors that influence the school readiness of children from low-income families," according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has reported that children who attend some form of preschool program at age 4 are nine percentage points more likely to be school-ready than other children, due largely to early math and reading skills and, to a lesser extent, positive learning-related behaviors acquired in preschool.

As Hoffman has told Gazette readers, Montana's first effort to put state funds into preschool began last school year with the enrollment of about 300 students in the STARS pilot program administered by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The 20-plus STARS classrooms funded statewide include a private preschool in Shepherd, an expansion of pre-K in Lockwood Public Schools and Head Start Explorers Academy in Billings.

At the same time, a major, multi-year federal grant administered by the Office of Public Instruction allowed preschool to be offered to about 1,000 other Montana 4-year-olds. That grant runs out this spring, and the STARS pilot was for two years only.

On Wednesday, a Republican-sponsored bill that would have funded a more robust preschool program statewide, building upon the other pilot programs' successes, was killed in committee — all but dooming the hopes of continuing the good work that has already begun.

While there is a chance some kind of additional funding could be tacked on to a bill to keep the current programming on life support until the 2021 Legislature, those hopes remain distant.

We're disappointed that our own lawmakers and some educators, including the state's teachers union, stood in the way of hindering children who stand to get ahead by this early educational opportunity.

We applaud Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, who introduced House Bill 755 to continue pre-K opportunities, especially for disadvantaged Montana children. He showed leadership when he told fellow lawmakers that he stood opposed to the legislation two years ago, but that his mind was changed on a trip to visit Alabama, another conservative state, which adopted a similar program.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, cosponsored HB756. He is the father of three children, two of whom are attending preschool programs in Great Falls public schools advocated for working together. "If this doesn't go through ... it'll end up cutting services. I'm going to prioritize Montana children."

Preschool has been a top priority for Gov. Steve Bullock.

Bullock said the school-ready program proposed in HB755 would have doubled the number of 4-year-olds served, reaching 30 to 35 percent of that population statewide. Priority would have been given to continuing existing programs and funding programs in school districts with a high percentage of students in poverty.

In a book first published 33 years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Turns out that children have to be ready to learn before they reach kindergarten. That's why Montana lawmakers should redouble their efforts and figure out a way to invest in pre-K.

We've made too much progress on behalf of our children to take a step backward.

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The Billings Gazette

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