Saying their opponent seeks to defund public education, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney and Melissa Romano, the party’s candidate for the Office of Public Instruction, joined union leaders in Missoula on Thursday to roll out their educational platform.
As proposed, the Brighter Future Montana Plan would invest in teachers and staff, work to reduce college debt, create a statewide standard for student loan services, and grow the state’s workforce with a focus on career and technical education.
It would also establish a voluntary education program before children enter kindergarten.
“All you have to do is look at the evidence of how important this program is,” said Cooney. “Montana is one of a handful of states that doesn’t offer this to their citizens. We’ve got to make this a priority.”
Gov. Steve Bullock over his two terms in office tried but was unable to get a similar program through the Legislature. In 2017, the program was approved on a pilot basis, though permanent funding for early public education failed to make it out of committee during the 2019 session.
Cooney believes the support is now there and members of both parties see the value and benefits of early childhood education.
“When our 4 year olds go to a quality pre-K program, they’re more likely to be successful in kindergarten, more likely to be successful throughout their school career, more likely to graduate high school, and they’re less likely to be involved in activities that put them in conflict with law enforcement,” Cooney said. “This is an investment in Montana’s future, and it will pay dividends if we do it.”
Melissa Romano, the Democratic candidate for the Office of Public Instruction, also backed the program during Thursday’s unveiling. A former teacher, Romano said the state needs bold ideas that start with providing its youngest children the quality education the state constitution guarantees them.
“Now is not the time to cut corners in our children’s education,” Romano said. “The benefits of preschool extend well beyond daily child care. It gives our children an important introduction to school. For many children, it provides an opportunity to become familiar with the math, reading and social skills they need to be successful once they enter kindergarten.”
The proposal offered under the Bullock administration sought funding to enable 4 year olds to enroll in part-time preschool. It was assumed then that around 40% of eligible children would join the program, which amounted to more than 2,000 children.
Casey Schreiner, a former teacher and Cooney’s pick for Lt. Governor, said the early education option in the Great Falls school system helped his children, two of which have special needs.
“This one is personal to me,” Schreiner said. “They are where they are today because I grew up in a community that had quality public pre-K. It changes the trajectory of their life, which ultimately does nothing but make our state a better place.”
Cooney’s education plan would also beef up remote learning and help schools with technology upgrades. It includes a school lunch debt waiver, a program to recruit and retain top educators, and would shore up the pension system for public employees.
It also looks to invest in higher education. That includes a proposed tuition freeze at the state’s four-year institutions and a “student borrower bill of rights.” That proposal would enforce statewide industry standards for student loan services and guard against predatory loan practices.
“We need to make sure we’re not saddling our students with huge college debt, as we’re seeing throughout this country,” Cooney said. “We’ve done that with a college freeze, but we’ve also been able to back fill some of those dollars, which we need to continue to do so we’re not saddling the university system with additional debt.”
Cooney described the investment in higher education as a non-partisan issue.
“This is an investment in people and Montana, an investment in our workforce,” he said. “Our young people want to stay and raise their families in Montana and find good paying jobs and an opportunity to advance. We need to give them those opportunities.”
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees said the state’s largest union has firmly backed Cooney’s platform and candidacy for governor. In a rare move, she added, the union has condemned the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte.
Among other things, Curtis said Gianforte has called public education “a monopoly” and has funneled millions of dollars into a private school in Bozeman.
“He supports privatizing our public education system, funneling our public dollars away from our public schools into private ones,” Curtis said. “Greg Gianforte will eliminate this union and privatize Montana education as his first and second orders of businesses in the state legislature.”