STARS preschool class

Governor Steve Bullock talks with kids in a STARS preschool class at Explorers Academy on March 27, 2018. Bullock is still championing state funding of high-quality pre-kindergarten.

Attempts to bridge a divide on public preschool funding are stalled despite a Monday meeting between legislators, education advocates and staffers from Gov. Steve Bullock's office. 

So far the role of private providers has proved too thorny to negotiate, as has who would oversee an expansive public preschool program. 

“I don’t see a path forward at this point,” said Lance Melton, who leads the Montana School Boards Association. 

A pair of preschool bills failed to advance before a March deadline. One Democrat-sponsored bill would have created a sweeping program in public schools, and a Republican-sponsored bill would have funded public schools, federally backed Head Start programs and private providers and created a new early childhood education department in state government. 

Expanding preschool funding has been a major priority for Bullock, who backed both bills. The death of those bills eliminated the traditional avenue for funding preschool, but options still exist, like companion budget bills that effectively act as placeholders. 

In the Monday meeting, Melton brought forward proposed bill language that would have funded Head Start programs and public schools, but also created a charter program that allowed private programs to operate under the supervision of local school boards and the Board of Pubic Education.

It also nixed the new education department, instead deferring to the Board of Public Education, which already has its own preschool standards. 

Republican Reps. Llew Jones and Eric Moore and Democrat Reps. Casey Schreiner and Laurie Bishop attended the meeting. Moore and Schreiner carried the earlier preschool bills. 

Eric Feaver, the president of the state teacher's union, doubled down on earlier opposition of funding for private providers. He called the inclusion of a charter program "a huge concession."

"But apparently it wasn't enough," he said. 

Moore had framed the concept of "school choice," which often provides public funding for private schools, as integral to his bill. 

"It's coming down to kind of a school choice issue," he said. "We've had lots of meetings ... no real breakthroughs."

Feaver and other education advocates who opposed Moore's bill feared that funding private preschools would lead to expanded funding of private schools in K-12 education. 

“It’s kind of like inviting an infection. If you don’t attend to it, it will just grow,” he said. 

Montana's STARS program, a two-year, $6 million pilot passed in 2017, did fund private programs, along with public schools and Head Start. That funding is set to expire, as is money from a four-year, $40 million federal grant to expand preschool in Montana. 

A handful of education advocates at a March hearing for Moore's bill said that private program funding was something they could stomach. But the bill split both parties; it didn't garner enough support from Republicans, who have often opposed public preschool bills, and split off too many Democrats, who have traditionally supported the bills. 

It doesn't appear that the split has resolved. 

“At this point, we’re just not there, and we’re a little bit running out of time. We’re still working on it,” Melton said. “I know that everyone involved is interested in helping kids. There are just a couple of real key distinctions that divide us."

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Melton said the legislators were most concerned about private programs being able to operate independently, and that Bullock's office and legislators stood by the new early childhood education department. 

He said he was concerned about to potential of a proposal slipping through, much like the STARS program did in April 2017. Melton and MTSBA are effectively lobbyists for school boards; they don't get a vote.

“We read about it in the papers. And we don’t want that to happen again,” he said. "The only power we have is at the very least to withhold our consent to it.”

His group's opposition, along with the Montana Federation of Public Employees and other education groups like School Administrators of Montana, had enough sway to split off Democrats who had previously supported public preschool. 

Moore said he didn't think a proposal would have the votes to pass without support from the union and education groups. 

Jones responded to a request for comment with a brief text message that no agreement had been reached, but discussions were continuing. The other legislators didn't respond to phone messages. 

A spokeswoman for Bullock sent an emailed statement that reiterated Bullock's support for preschool, but didn't address the Monday meeting. 

“I don’t think anybody’s giving up,” Melton said. “Anything can happen until the legislature adjourns.”

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