When it comes to investing in early childhood education, the state of Alabama has set a model to follow, Gov. Steve Bullock told Missoula business leaders on Thursday.
Getting the state’s children proficient in reading and math at an early age pays dividends down the road, he added, helping produce a productive workforce while reducing public costs in social services and corrections.
“Despite all of that, we’ve never quite gotten there in Montana,” Bullock said. “We know it works. We’ve seen in other states the difference it can fundamentally make. We have a larger push this time to see that happen. Most states are so far ahead of us.”
With the Legislature in full bloom, Bullock promoted elements of his education and workforce initiatives at the University of Montana, where business leaders gathered for the Leadership Missoula program sponsored by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce.
Nationally, 44 states have made significant investments in publicly funded preschool programs, though Montana isn’t one of them. And those other states are moving forward while Montana debates the issue.
“Ninety-two percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time they enter kindergarten,” Bullock said. “That base qualification, if you’re actually talking about a workforce, can’t wait until they’re a senior in high school or a senior in college.”
In 2017, the state Legislature did approve $6 million for a trial program in 17 Montana communities. Before the program, just 50 percent of students in Alberton were proficient in math and 29 percent in reading as they entered kindergarten.
After the pilot program, 75 percent were proficient in math and 67 percent in reading, Bullock said.
“Our biggest challenge for most of the businesses you’re in is making sure you have a quality workforce,” Bullock said. “There’s a reason why the Missoula Chamber is really trying to look at child care issues. It’s not just for that individual child, but to make sure the parents can be productive members of the workforce as well.”
Those educational efforts don’t end with early childhood, but extend though high school and college. While 46 states have decreased their investment in higher education by 17 percent on average, Montana has made efforts to keep tuition low.
When college tuition goes up, Bullock said, it represents a tax increase on 28,000 Montana families and leaves more students with a greater debt load.
“While there’s a significant need for two- and four-year education, most states are balancing their budget by reducing their investment in higher education,” Bullock said. “Montana is one of four states that have increased their investment since the recession.”
But Bullock said more can be done. On Thursday, a legislative committee unanimously endorsed the Montana University System’s budget that includes $24 million to freeze tuition for resident students for the next two years.
While that marks a positive step, Bullock said the needs of Montana’s employers must also be factored in. Those needs don’t necessarily require a four-year degree.
“We’ve set a goal at looking a little bit larger about what workforce development needs and what the pipelines to success are,” he said. “Two-year degrees, one-year certificates and apprenticeships are a really critical part of the equation.”
Bullock’s administration has set a goal that by 2025, the percentage of Montanans with a college degree will increase to 60 percent. It currently stands at 44 percent.
To meet those goals, government and education can’t do it alone.
“It’s got to be robust partnerships with the private sector,” Bullock said. “There’s a thousand different apprenticeship fields. You’re gaining skills while you’re getting paid.”
When Bullock took office, he said none of the state’s 10 junior colleges were providing a professional recognized certificate or apprenticeship program. Now, seven of the 10 junior colleges provide coursework for apprenticeships.
“Missoula College here is doing a great job working with apprenticeships,” he said. “Let’s match the needs to the workforce and give people the path to know that if they follow this, they can have a decent job.”