Democrat Rep. Dave Fern returned to the Whitefish School Board last week to give an overview of the recent state legislative session, but the discussion focused primarily on public pre-kindergarten education in the state.
House Bill 755, which would’ve created a Montana “School-Ready Preschool Program,” died in standing committee last month, but Fern said when comparing expectations to how the bill actually fared, he was surprised.
“I went into the session thinking there was no chance for pre-kindergarten,” Fern said. “The thoughts from folks beforehand was that it was dead on arrival, and actually it was pretty close to being passed.”
The bill, introduced by Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City and backed by Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock, would have sent $11 million to public and private preschools in the state and created a new department of early childhood.
Trustee Ruth Harrison asked Fern if the bill failed because it helped private preschools along with funding public pre-K.
“I’m wondering about that strong claim that I heard, probably from Montana school boards, that what killed it was some of the funding being siphoned off to private schools,” she said.
Fern said about 15 percent of the funding from the bill would have gone into existing private preschool programs.
Keeping and supporting private preschools would ensure there is at least some variety of options, Fern explained.
“The reason that was being done was because it was being claimed that a one-size-fits-all was not going to work real well in our state, at least to get it going,” he said.
Harrison disagreed with the idea, saying she feels public schools need to come before private ones when it comes to using taxpayer dollars.
“I always have problems with [taking] public tax dollars to support private schools at the expense of the public school. It just doesn’t not seem like it follows the philosophy that says we need an educated entire voting public in a democracy,” she said.
Trustee Betsy Kohnstamm said her experience with students has shown there’s a need for a program that better prepares children before they reach kindergarten.
“Having been a teacher with little kids, I’ve watched a lot of kids arrive at school not ready. I think it’s something we really have to do, and we’re one of the last states in the nation not to do it, so it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how to get it passed,” she said, noting she’d like to see other school boards from around the Flathead Valley come together and advocate for public preschool as a whole.
“If we could get all the other districts in the county to be behind it, than I think we’d have a lot bigger say,” she said.
Fern spoke to Kohnstamm’s point about being one of few states not to have public preschool.
“Looking at it internationally, the U.S. is pretty far behind as far as supplying preschool opportunities. So really I look at it as our competition against the 20 to 25 industrialized first world countries and how do we stack up,” he said. “So we stack up poorly as a state against the rest of the states, and as a country, we stack up pretty poorly against the world. It would seem to me that it is a pretty big deal.”
“I think my disappointment in it is that it was close and we don’t know what the future will be. Who sits in the governorship is a big deal,” he added.
Fern, who represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature, served nearly 24 years on the Whitefish School Board before resigning in 2016.