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In a speech to state business leaders Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock said he’s preparing a major proposal to fund early-childhood education in Montana — and wants their help in supporting it.

“If we want to have a workforce that can compete for the jobs of tomorrow, we must invest in the children of today,” he said at a Montana Chamber of Commerce conference in Helena.

Bullock, a Democrat, said Montana is one of only nine states with no significant publicly funded preschool or early-childhood education program.

His said administration will be “putting together a program to make those investments,” to be submitted to the 2015 Legislature.

Last fall, his administration and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau applied for a $37 million grant from the Obama administration to help fund early-childhood education.

Montana, however, was not among the six states that won grants late last month.

Earlier Thursday, Bullock said the grant was not “the be-all and end-all of what we needed to do” on early childhood education.

The question now will be whether and how the state finds the money to fund such programs, which he said are sorely needed.

“It really is an investment not just in education, but in economic development in our state,” he said in an interview with reporters at the Capitol. “We do need to prioritize this.”

Six states won the federal early-childhood grants, totaling $280 million, to help each state “align, coordinate and improve the quality of existing early learning and development programs,” according to the Obama administration.

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Montana’s proposal called for expanding access to prekindergarten programs among low-income families, improving standards for early-childhood education providers, strengthening the early-childhood workforce and preparing all kids for kindergarten.

Juneau said Thursday she hadn’t seen the final scoring on the grant, but it’s likely Montana’s chances were hurt because it has no substantial state investment in early childhood programs.

Bullock, in his speech Thursday, said Montana remains in “the shrinking minority of states that have never invested in the human capital of our earliest learners.”

Research has shown that kids who take part in prekindergarten programs are less likely to have to repeat a grade, drop out of school, become teenage parents, abuse drugs or end up in jail.

Every dollar spent on good, early-childhood programs results in $7 to $9 savings down the road, he said.

“Done right, it is a win-win scenario,” Bullock said. “You’re more likely to have the skilled workers you need, and the state is less likely to spend money on corrections and safety-net programs down the road.”

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Reporter for the Montana Lee Newspapers State Bureau Helena, Montana.

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