By Mike Halligan and James S. Marks
Montanans have a long history of doing right by our neighbors. It may be the fourth largest state in the country, but many residents will tell you it’s more like a small town with really long roads. We take the nickname “the last best place” seriously, recognizing our state’s immense natural beauty and taking pride in the fact that many of our communities are thriving, and industries such as agriculture and tourism are strong. But like every state, Montana faces a pressing challenge: ensuring that our children grow up healthy and productive. Our long-term prosperity depends on their ability to succeed.
1 in 5 kids in poverty
Despite the fact that a growing body of evidence links early childhood education to long-term student success, 1 in 5 Montana children live in poverty, 6 in 10 of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool, and Montana is 1 of only 8 states in the nation without a publicly funded pre-kindergarten option.
This is alarming.
Leaders from around the country recently gathered in Helena to take part in the Montana Healthy Communities Conference hosted by the Montana Health Care Foundation, the Montana Area Health Education Center and the Office of Rural Health at Montana State University, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The purpose was simple, yet urgent: to explore ways that community development and health organizations can work better together. A major benefit of such partnerships? Communities that allow all Montana’s children to thrive.
The group unequivocally concluded that one of the smartest investments any community can make is in early childhood support. That realization is hardly surprising, yet meaningful investments in high-quality early education at home and at school can be difficult to achieve.
Children spend the majority of their time at home and these settings must be as enriching and growth promoting as possible. Programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership — which both of our organizations have supported — can help parents provide healthy, nurturing experiences for their children.
Invest in youngest kids
At the same time, research shows that high-quality early childhood education programs have the most impact in improving overall education outcomes for a community and help children to learn and read on grade-level. Children who aren’t ready for kindergarten are half as likely to read proficiently by third grade. Children who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more.
Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. While they need to decide what’s best, a growing body of research shows that children who participate in high-quality early education programs are more likely to be successful in school, graduate and attend college, and less likely to be a teen parent, drop out, abuse drugs or be arrested for a violent crime.
We challenge the state’s leaders to keep Montana the “last best place” by investing in its children. It is the right thing to do for families, and the right thing to do for the future. Let’s make sure Montana is the “best place” for our children at last.
Mike Halligan is executive director of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation in Missoula. James S. Marks is executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
This guest opinion originally appeared in the Billings Gazette on Nov. 14, 2015.