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MT Kids Start School Year With Fewer Preschool Options

From 2015-17, 58% of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in Montana were not in school. (New Africa/Adobe Stock)
From 2015-17, 58% of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in Montana were not in school. (New Africa/Adobe Stock)
August 29, 2019

HELENA, Mont. – School is back in session, but not for many of Montana's preschool-age children this year.

After the state Legislature funded a two-year preschool pilot program in 2017, lawmakers were unable to come up with a deal this year to continue backing early childhood education, setting Montana back into a pool of only six states that don't provide funding for preschool.

Thale Dillon, a researcher at the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, says studies show children who attend quality preschool do better in school later on.

"The thing about having universal pre-K is that it puts everybody on an equal footing,” Dillon points out. “It doesn't favor those who can afford to pay for preschool rather than daycare."

Two deals to fund preschool fizzled in the Legislature over fights about whether the funding should go to both public and private programs.

In the two years before Montana's pilot in 2017, about 58% or 14,000 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds were not in school, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Without a preschool option, many parents will rely on day care.

While Dillon notes day care is important, especially for working parents such as herself, she says workers are not typically trained in early childhood education, meaning they aren't setting up children for school the way a quality education program would.

"The programs that they have are not on par with what universal pre-K would be like, which is more of like a focused, curriculum-based learning environment," she states.

The 2017 pilot provided about 1,400 spots through funding to 10 school districts and seven private providers.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT