Montana gets $4.2M federal preschool grant, but money won’t pay for new slots

Montana will get a new $4.2 million, one-year preschool grant, but it won’t go toward paying for the new seats that a previous $10 million per year grant created. 

The state’s $40 million, four-year preschool development grant is expiring after this school year. It’s created more than 1,000 high-quality preschool slots.

The new grant is part of a second round of the program, but it won’t replace the dollars from the old grant. Instead, it will go toward research, outreach and training to better understand and improve Montana’s existing preschool system. 

The state’s application wasn’t fully funded. It asked for about $6 million in federal funding with the state kicking in about $1.7 million. 

Siri Smillie, Bullock’s education adviser, said the state is working to revise the programs’ budget and activities. 

Officials from Gov. Steve Bullock’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the grant. 

Publicly funded preschool has been a major priority for Bullock. He’s lauded the grant and has championed a $6 million, two-year state-funded preschool pilot program. 

His proposed budget heading into the 2019 legislative session allocates $30 million toward preschool funding, including nearly $20 million to implement a voluntary program in public schools. Similar high-dollar asks were shot down by legislative Republicans in 2015 and 2017. 

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A 2017 report released in August show that the $40 million grant created 76 classrooms in 22 communities, for a total of 1,000 slots by its third year of implementation. About 300 more children in the program didn’t meet federal guidelines and aren’t officially counted as slots. 

That’s up from 27 classrooms in 12 communities with 462 slots in year one. 

Not all slots are completely new; but all of them now adhere to high-quality requirements, like full-day attendance, having highly-trained teachers and using an approved curriculum. 

The report also shows that the cost of preschool slots has continued to drop.

The price of preschool seats far exceeded projections during the first year of grant implementation, with costs soaring to an average of more than $14,000 per slot. The state originally targeted a price tag of about $3,500.

Officials expected costs to drop in year two. They plummeted, down to about $5,000 per seat. 

In year three, average costs ticked down to about $4,100 per seat. They ranged from about $1,000 per seat to about $9,600 per seat. 

Those costs include supplies, infrastructure needs and teacher training in addition to basic salary and operating expenses. 

For example, the grant has given money to 190 teachers to help them pursue early childhood degrees. The report identified a lack of trainer teachers as one of the biggest obstacles to opening new classrooms in rural areas. 

“Though significant progress has been made on this goal, more work remains to be done because Montana still does not have enough qualified teachers to serve its needs, especially in more rural areas,” the report says. 

The report offered little in the way of description for sustainability for the seats. 

“The State Team is working with (Program Leadership Teams) to think creatively to develop ways to sustain the progress they have made to continue to be able to provide access to High-Quality Preschool Programs in their communities. Communities are working collaboratively and many School District and Head Start programs are pooling resources to ensure that the number and percentage of Eligible Children with access to High-Quality Preschool Programs in the State will be maintained or expanded. School districts are exploring ways to blend funding sources that include Title I, special education, Impact Aid, and General Funds,” the report says. 

“Programs have developed program-wide process for using data to inform ongoing improvement of outcomes for children. It is the goal of the state to continue to work with programs to ensure these new processes become part of the everyday way in which they operate so they continue beyond the grant. The state has also focused efforts on workforce development through job-embedded learning opportunities, meetings, trainings, and financial assistant efforts discussed earlier in this report to sustain high quality standard implementation in early childhood settings across the state.”