HELENA, Mont. -- Montana enters the upcoming school year back among the handful of states without publicly funded preschool, and the unions and education groups that are otherwise staunch allies of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock are a big reason why his fledgling pre-kindergarten program fizzled.
The state briefly broke from those ranks with a 2017 budget item that provided funding for preschool programs through 10 school districts and seven private providers. Bullock, who is now running for the Democratic nomination for president, touted it as a major win for one of his top priorities of his final term: early childhood education.
He also said it would be the beginning of a statewide program that would ultimately help boost graduation rates, lead to better and higher-paying jobs and lift Montana from being one of just six states — including Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota and New Hampshire — that don't spend public money on preschool.
Eric Feaver, a Democratic Party activist and president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said he would have opposed the last-minute budget item if he'd had the chance.
So when Bullock's priority list for his final legislative session this year included pushing an expansion of the pre-kindergarten program through the Republican-dominated Legislature, Feaver and others were wary.
The governor's $22 million preschool package failed to get a committee vote during the 2019 session so Bullock backed a compromise — a Republican bill to spend $15 million over two years on both private and public preschools.
And this time, Feaver and others, such as School Administrators of Montana Executive Director Kirk Miller, lobbied against the governor.
Feaver, who agrees there is a need for pre-K programming in Montana, rejected the argument that some preschool funding — including private programs — is better than none at all.
Bullock should have continued to fight for his proposal to fund preschool in the same way the state funds kindergarten, rather than support the compromise bill, which would have "created what we consider charter schools for pre-K," Feaver said.
"We have never supported the privatization of public education in this state," Feaver said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Miller, with School Administrators of Montana, said preschool should be tied to public schools "because that is the best way to assure equitable access for all."
Few states offer what Feaver and Miller were seeking — state funding exclusively for public preschool programs.
Instead, most have "mixed delivery systems" for pre-K in which state money goes to public schools and private providers, said W. Stephen Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Whether the state is run by Republicans or Democrats didn't appear to affect that funding mix, according to the institute's data. Georgia, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina funded a nearly even mix of public and private preschool, not including federally funded Head State programs, during the 2016-17 school year.
Not only did the proposal to expand Montana's pilot preschool program die, but a last-ditch effort to keep the program running failed, too.
The end of the state pilot program and federal grants meant the loss of spots for 1,400 children.
"It is unfortunate that legislators and advocates could not agree to invest in our earliest learners, and as a result, there are nearly 100 classrooms around the state at risk, hundreds of preschoolers with a missed opportunity, teachers who could lose their jobs, and parents who won't be able to participate in the workforce," Bullock said in a statement at the close of the legislative session.
The proposal is certain to come up again after Bullock leaves office in 2021.
Montana recently received a $4.2 million preschool development grant that will be used by early childhood advocates, in part, to propose legislation for the 2021 session, Miller said. It cannot be used for classroom spots.
In the meantime, the Montana Public Education Center — an organization that includes the leaders of six statewide education groups — is putting together information to make sure school boards and administrators around the state know they have flexibility to consider "exceptional circumstances" to offer publicly funded preschool to 4-year-olds. Those circumstances can include poverty, individuals with disabilities and English language learners.
"Establishment of an early childhood program to serve 4-year-olds can happen," Miller said. "Those students would be considered enrolled" and would be eligible for state per-student funding.
About 330 students were enrolled in such programs during the 2018-19 school year, state officials said.
The School Administrators of Montana held a conference in Helena in late July, and one session addressed the flexibility districts have to offer preschool programs.
The Montana Public Education Center wants to make sure officials at all schools "know and understand that they have the ability to do that," Miller said.