A little more than three months ago, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, made the latest legislative pitch for publicly funded preschool in Montana. Echoing a pair of early childhood education advocates who testified earlier in the session, she noted on the Senate floor that the state is one of only six that doesn’t offer such an option. Her proposed solution, hashed out by lawmakers between the 2019 and 2021 sessions, was to give school districts the option — and, if they chose, the funding — to establish free pre-K programs for students ages 3 to 5.

“I’m not talking about the opportunity for us to spend money for cute little boys and girls to sit criss-cross applesauce and read Dr. Suess books,” O’Brien said. “I’m talking about brain development so that our children are ready to learn and ready to work.”

The proposal, Senate Bill 342, experienced the same fate as other pre-K measures in past sessions: It failed on a party-line vote. Republican lawmakers said it was too costly, that it fell outside the educational obligations in the Montana Constitution, and that it may result in job losses among private daycare providers. A fiscal analysis prepared by the governor’s budget office estimated the general fund cost for optional public pre-K at $22.4 million over the next two years. The fiscal note also estimated the total number of eligible 4-year-olds in Montana in the first year of the biennium at 11,940.

Despite the defeat, early childhood education advocates have continued to argue the case for a state-funded public preschool model using data and anecdotal information gleaned from past initiatives that have since expired. A two-year pilot program called STARS Preschool, which served 300 4- and 5-year-olds statewide at no cost to parents before it expired in 2019, reported a 21% increase in kindergarten readiness among participating students. 

Caitlin Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit Zero to Five Montana, said her organization frequently hears from parents who had children enrolled in such programs and are now struggling with the lack of similar options.

“You really see preschool not only as a great benefit for parents and families through the economic piece of it, but the outcomes that you see in kids who participate in a high-quality preschool program are just incredible,” Jensen told Montana Free Press. “There’s studies that show for every dollar invested, there’s up to a $9 to $10 return on that investment.”

Other early education opportunities exist throughout Montana, from private preschools to a network of 20 Head Start programs serving preschool-aged children from low-income families. However, Jensen noted that waitlists for those services can be long, and access is often a considerable challenge, particularly in rural areas.

In recent weeks, the Utah-based nonprofit Waterford has responded to the lack of a state-funded public option by increasing its call for applicants in an early learning pilot program. Waterford launched a multi-state program for its online platform Upstart in Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming in 2019 and expanded the program in 2020 to include South Dakota and Montana. Waterford spokesperson Kim Fischer told Montana Free Press that 250 preschool-aged Montanans enrolled in the two-year pilot last school year. The nonprofit has filled 96 of 400 available slots for this fall, with the current registration ending on Aug. 31. State Superintendent of Public Education Elsie Arntzen has lauded the program, which is funded by federal Education and Innovation Research.

“Digital learning is a great tool that supports strong family engagement and school readiness for our young learners,” Arntzen said in an email statement last month announcing the pilot’s second year. “We are seeing extraordinary results through Montana’s collaboration with the Waterford Upstart grant program, and look forward to expanding the program to even more Montana children this year.”

According to Waterford’s year-one report to the U.S. Department of Education, 77% of the Montana students who participated last year lived in rural areas, and more than two-thirds were performing at a kindergarten level or higher in language, math and science by the time they completed the program. Lindzy Palmer, a former Bozeman resident who recently relocated to Utah, enrolled one of her two daughters in Waterford’s Montana pilot last fall after attempting unsuccessfully to find preschool openings nearby. Palmer said she’s noticed a marked difference in that daughter’s math skills compared to her sister, who is one year older and had already entered kindergarten when the Waterford pilot began.

“That part has been very fascinating to me because older sister is very smart and she gets things quickly,” Palmer said. “And yet here’s her little sister who’s whopping her with math.”

Fischer said Waterford hopes the pilot project will ultimately produce data that will help strengthen the case for early education ahead of the next legislative session in 2023.

The digital approach to early education promoted by Waterford Upstart and others has attracted criticism from some national early education experts who argue that online instruction is a poor substitute for in-person classes when it comes to developing social and emotional skills. And Montana’s continued reliance on different grant-backed initiatives poses challenges, as well, Jensen said, when what Montana families need are continuity and stability. Meanwhile, those families struggle to find affordable options in a state that the National Institute for Early Education Research has deemed a “preschool desert.”

“Just from a taxpayer dollar perspective, we really want to make sure that our investments are going to last and that they’re effective and that there are clear outcomes and we’re seeing the benefit for our kids,” Jensen said.

Montana’s continued struggle toward state-funded preschool also ties to one of the state’s most widespread and prominent issues: workforce shortage. Ann Klaas, a professional development system coordinator at the Montana Early Childhood Project, said low pay throughout the childcare system, coupled with the costs associated with individual training, makes it difficult to recruit and retain employees.

“That’s I think the biggest problem is that we’re just not compensating well, and we’re asking them to jump through hoops in their education,” Klaas said. “We give out scholarships for college students to pursue a degree in early childhood, but how do you attract people and keep them in the field when you’re not paying them enough to survive?”

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.