Written by Braydon Schilling
Braydon Schilling is a nationally certified school psychologist who works in the Butte public school system.
As a parent of two preschool age children and a school psychologist within the public school system, I am a strong advocate for providing high-quality education to early learners (ages 3 to 6).
The research is clear that early interventions like high-quality preschool pay off down the road for children, schools, families, and communities. I see it every day in my work as a school psychologist — the students whose families had resources to get them services before they got to kindergarten, demonstrate much higher levels of academic achievement throughout their educational careers. Kindergarten teachers I work with tell me that they can see the difference between kids who have had a high-quality preschool experience and those who have not.
Luckily, dozens of students in my district — Butte School District #1 — have benefited from a federal preschool grant over the last few years, and it has made a visible difference. They are among the more than 1,000 students across the state attending high-quality preschool classrooms in school districts and at Head Starts. And nearly all are “kindergarten” ready by the end of their preschool year. That compares to about 50% for their peers who didn’t have a shot at attending these great preschool programs.
In 2017, legislators from both parties agreed to a one-time “pilot” program, providing $6 million to demonstrate whether or not preschool could work in Montana as it does in 44 other states. Turns out – it does! Anyone can go online and google the Montana STARS Preschool Year 1 Evaluation where you will see that 93% of participating children were kindergarten-ready by the end of their preschool year. Children showed growth in all developmental domains and those who needed extra interventions got them early when they are more likely to have an impact.
Montana has a chance to continue these great programs and establish a permanent publicly funded preschool program this legislative session, but unfortunately, politics have gotten in the way of what is best for Montana’s kids.
So far this session, both Governor Bullock’s proposal and a bipartisan compromise alternative, also supported by Governor Bullock, failed to make it out of the House Education Committee. While I commend those legislators who voted for one or both bills, I’m frustrated that something as important as preschool has become part of political games at the Capitol.
Opponents argue that HB 755, the bipartisan compromise bill isn’t perfect and doesn’t serve every child. I’m not an expert in policy-making, but I know enough to know that getting to a perfect bill that every legislator and every constituency group is perfectly happy with is a bit like searching for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s probably not going to happen.
If this Legislature is paralyzed by an inability to compromise, dozens of school districts will be forced to scale back or cut their preschool classrooms for lack of funding. Head Start programs in places from Browning to Billings will reduce the number of children they can serve. And thousands of children that desperately need this opportunity to change the trajectory of their education and life will be out of luck.
Legislators of both parties: I urge you to put the kids first. We know preschool works. We know we must make sure it is high-quality. It is time to level the playing field and increase the outcomes for all children. In education, we often talk about getting the biggest bang for our buck, which would begin with providing funding for high-quality preschool programs. By increasing funding for early education, it is very likely to have lasting impacts such as increasing achievement within schools, increasing graduation rates, lower crime rates and decreasing taxpayer burdens to fund prisons. Analysis of 20 plus studies of preschool programs shows, on average, a “profit” to society of $15,000 for every child educated through a high-quality preschool program-regarding lower costs for crime, welfare, mental health, and other things.
Pay for preschools, not prisons. I believe we all can agree on those things, so let’s get it done.