Commentary

Montana children need more investment in early childhood programming

June 28, 2021 7:58 am

Toddler(Bill Kasman/Pixabay)

Every day, 30 babies are born in Montana. That is an entire classroom of future fourth graders born per day. By fourth grade, only 11 of these kids will read proficiently and be on track for future academic success. The other 19 will struggle to read at grade level and may fall behind in school. How these children spend their early years matters.

Supportive early learning environments help children develop the social, emotional and literacy skills they need to succeed in school and life. Children experience rapid brain development when they are young. They learn an entire language and can recognize 10,000 words by age 5. By playing with other children, they learn social and emotional skills. Early learning has more than just short-term benefits though. Research shows that children who attend early education programs are less likely to need special education and more likely to graduate from high school.

Last week, KIDS COUNT released its 32nd annual data book comparing all 50 states in child well-being. The latest rankings show that Montana is 26th in education. Unfortunately, two-thirds of Montana fourth graders do not read proficiently, and this number has not changed in a decade, showing that reading progress stalled.

While reading proficiency is important for all children in Montana, some children are getting left behind. Children in lower-income families and American Indian children are less likely to read proficiently. Making matters worse, the gap has widened in the last decade. Children in higher-income homes improved reading proficiency, while children in lower-income families stayed the same. These types of gaps in education achievement point to systemic problems. Parents earning low wages may work long hours to make ends meet, limiting the time they can spend on learning activities with young children. Lower-income families may also struggle to find and pay for quality child care, further limiting their children’s access to resources and education during a critical period of development.

A strong early childhood system starts with access to high-quality child care. However, Montana severely lacks enough child care, with slots available for only 48 percent of children with all parents working. High-quality child care is even harder to find, with only 12 percent of child care slots meeting the high-quality rating. Our economy depends on child care. If parents cannot find a safe and reliable place for their children to grow and learn during the day, they cannot return to work, which hurts families, businesses, and our economy.

Imagine a state where families have access to a variety of child care options to meet their needs and early learning opportunities for their children. Where parents can go back to work and be productive while their kids are taken care of. This is in reach for Montana, but state policymakers must invest in quality early childhood education to make that a reality. Our state should prioritize funding to ensure families living on lower incomes can afford high-quality child care and early education. Supporting and promoting Head Start programs for children under 5, particularly for children living in tribal communities, can help expand access to high-quality early learning.

Stronger investments in early childhood mean more Montana children will grow up as proficient readers, graduate high school, and get a job that they are good at and pays them well.

Xanna Burg is the KIDS COUNT Coordinator at the Montana Budget & Policy Center. Montana KIDS COUNT is a leading resource for data on child and family well-being in the state.

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