Almost all of us in education believe in the importance of high quality pre-K education, especially for students who come from disadvantage backgrounds. We almost universally agree that the state should fund high-quality programs that will give students the best chance to succeed.
But HB 755 is not the mechanism to fund pre-K education, and it certainly doesn’t ensure that the pre-K education will be effective. What’s more, it will threaten public education in Montana in coming legislative sessions.
Let’s start with the last argument first. Montana has long been a bastion of strong public schools, with the state not following the troubling national trend of diverting public dollars into unaccountable private schools. Across the country, these charter schools use public dollars to segregate and provide limited academic success. They pave the way for voucher programs that have even less accountability and divert public dollars into religious education.
In Montana, we have resisted the siren call of these politically expedient and damaging schools, but the call to fund private pre-K embedded in the practice and policy of HB 755 threatens that in our future.
There’s no worry that public dollars will be diverted to private schools under Governor Bullock’s watch, but it’s very easy to see how this pre-K plan could strengthen the hand of Republicans who want to privatize K-12. They won’t likely forget the lesson they will have learned in the 2019 session: that they can hold education funding hostage until they get privatization. How could Democrats who voted for privatized pre-k credibly turn around and oppose the expansion of privatization at the elementary and high school levels?
HB 755 might be a short-term win for preschool and Governor Bullock, but in the long run—not to mention the immediate future where a Republican governor could hold office—it’s a dangerous Trojan horse that will open the door to massive, destabilizing change to our public schools.
Make no mistake about it: Republicans in Montana are devoted to undermining public education in Montana. That devotion is evident in their platform, their rhetoric, and their votes. Handing them a tool to undermine K-12 makes neither moral nor political sense.
That’s not all that’s at stake, though. Proponents of HB 755 have systematically adopted the phrase “high-quality preschool” as if saying it will make it so. Nothing in HB 755 defines what will make a preschool eligible to receive state funding, leaving those decisions to a future Director of Early Childhood to determine the standards governing the facilities, their teachers, and their curriculum.
While Governor Bullock would certainly appoint a qualified expert to that position, I have no faith that a future Governor Gianforte’s appointee wouldn’t approve a backyard with a tire swing or a thinly veiled religious indoctrination program.
Rather than relying on the Board of Public Education to establish binding, research-based standards, HB 755 creates a new state bureaucracy that will only be accountable to the governor and dependent on towing his/her ideological line.
I understand the passion pre-K proponents are bringing to the issue. They’re right that high-quality pre-k programs mean a great deal for students, but the way to ensure that pre-K is the best value and the most effective it to keep it public, for the sake of those students and the K-12 system they will graduate into.