Local preschool loses funding for ‘free’ tuition

Legislature fails to extend STARS program
News-Argus Managing Editor
Tuesday, May 7, 2019
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Governor Bullock (center) stands with preschool students at Small Wonder Day Care in Lewistown when the Center’s grant funding for additional students was announced. Small Wonder Director Charrisse Jennings (back, right) and staff members Kylie Downs (second from right) and Bobbie Patterson (left) enjoy a moment with their young charges.

Photo courtesy of Charrisse Jennings


Despite a growing body of research showing the importance of early childhood education, paying for it remains contentious in Montana. Legislators chose not to extend statewide funding known as STARS, which leaves the families of 20 local preschoolers searching for options.

Approved by the Legislature in 2017, the STARS funding was available as grants to certified preschool programs. Schools meeting the criteria could apply for up to $150,000 per year to offer preschool classes for 4-year-olds. This year the program ended when Legislators could not agree on funding sources.

“Without the STARS program, we won’t be able to run our grant classroom,” said Charrisse Jennings, director of Small Wonder Childcare. “STARS funding provided us with $133,000 per year for the two years we had it.”

Jennings said STARS funding covered start-up costs for the new classroom and licensing more preschool teachers. But even more, it also covered tuition costs for parents who otherwise could not afford it.

“For the average Lewistown family, tuition costs amount to as much as 30 percent of their income,” Jennings said. “We had 53 applications when we opened the grant classroom, and we were able to enroll 20 of them with full tuition paid. Now those families have to go back to paying, or withdraw their children.”

Even though Jennings said the majority of state legislators agreed with the need for preschool education, she knew there was a chance the program might not be renewed. But knowing the research on the importance of early childhood education, Jennings said she felt compelled to lobby for continued funding.

“I went up [to testify in front of the Legislature] four different times,” Jennings said. “I took some of my teachers and families, too. The hearings were well attended, and there was not one voice in opposition.”

Still, in the end, the question of on-going funding killed the program.

Senator Ryan Osmundson (R-Buffalo) told the “Helena Independent Record” last April the funding proposal, at $3 million per year, was too expensive.

“This is always the challenge with accepting federal money and starting new programs, when the federal government starts backing out, we start, as a state, having to back-fill these things,” Osmundson is quoted as saying.

Governor Bullock, a staunch supporter of publicly-funded preschool, told the Legislature he was disappointed in the failure to approve on-going funding.

“It’s disappointing that after this legislative body came together two years ago to make the first-ever publicly funded investments in preschool for our four-year-olds, we will be saying goodbye to those gains… There are nearly 1,400 kids across this state who won’t be able to enter a preschool classroom next year – who won’t have the opportunity to build on the foundational skills needed to succeed in school and in life. There are nearly 100 classrooms around the state at risk,” Bullock said last week. “Quality preschool ought not be only for families who can afford it. I call on our future leaders, who will be in these Capitol hallways in two years, to find a way to get a permanent, publicly-funded preschool program done for this state, once and for all.”


Despite setback, some hopeful signs

Lewistown Superintendent of Schools Thom Peck called the loss of STARS funding a “blow.”

“Pre-School programs are vital to get kids prepared for ‘real school,’” he told the News-Argus. “We were disappointed with the STARS program not getting renewed, but we are working very closely with Head Start to possibly start a program for 5-year-olds, called ‘Kindersteps.’ These students are not quite ready for kindergarten, yet this program is a precursor to kindergarten. The students who qualify would go to school at Head Start, because they have the space, and we would provide the teacher and collect State funds to pay for the staffing. This would help families who may have kids who fit into this program. The STARS program cut is a huge blow to public pre-school funding and this program may help to alleviate that sting to the affected families.”

Jennings said she saw hopeful signs while talking to legislators this session.

“I think we moved the dial a little bit,” she said. “Three years ago, no one even wanted to discuss preschool. This time, the majority agreed we need it, and the disagreement was over how to fund it.”

Jennings said she thinks a mix of funding is best.

 “We’re not looking for the state to do it all,” she said. “Parents could do 5-10 percent, and maybe employers or corporations could do some.”



Lewistown currently has a population of about 6,000 people. What do you think is the ideal population level for Lewistown?