First Best Place

Montana is known for its big skies, mythology about cowboys and Indians, and as home to writers who describe the state as the “Last Best Place” in the world: a place of uncommonly beautiful landscapes, capable residents and a simpler way of life.

Much of this is true. It’s certainly a good part of what drew me to Montana as a young woman, and what has kept me here to fall in love, raise my children and do my life’s work.

Yet Montana is also the “last best place” to make certain policy commitments and public investments in its families and children. It is the only state in the nation that does not provide public funding to educate 19-year olds still enrolled in high school and it remains one of five states yet to ensure every child can go to preschool, regardless of income.

What would it take for Montana to become the “first best place” in the country, in terms of investing on one of its long-term interests: children?

Certainly, the opportunity exists. Unlike most states, Montana consistently runs a state budget surplus. Montanans created over 10,000 new jobs in the past year, wages are up, and the state’s unemployment rate, hovering at 4 percent, consistently falls below the national average.

The need exists, as well. Fewer children in Montana attend preschool or kindergarten than almost any other state in the nation. And in this case, income matters: children living in households with an income of $100,000 or more are 3.5 times more likely to attend preschool than those living in households with incomes below $50,000.

Why do preschool and other early learning opportunities matter? Research consistently supports the importance of quality, safe and engaging early learning, particularly for children of lower-income families. So, back to my question: what will it take to dramatically advance Montana’s rank as the “first best place” in the nation?

It starts with building on our existing capacities, which include a strong network of early learning coalitions and innovative public servants. It includes inviting school districts, child care providers, Main Street businesses, community leaders and, most importantly: families with young children, to join us in working to better understand the strengths and opportunities as well as the needs of local community efforts.

Across the nation and right here in Montana there are examples of initiatives that make a difference by investing in local community capacity as well as statewide learning.

Graduation Matters Montana (GMM), an initiative I helped to launch in 2010, grew to include 58 Montana communities, each working on their own “locally designed, locally implemented” high school graduation initiative while participating in a statewide learning community to share what was working. GMM resulted in the state’s highest graduation rate two years running.

In Canada, Tamarack Institute’s Vibrant Communities Canada resulted in an astounding 10 percent reduction in poverty over a ten-year period, through a strategy that included supporting localized, cross-sector approaches to anti-poverty efforts, based on a solid framework and supportive learning community.

Both of these initiatives are early adopters of collective impact, an advanced framework for multi-stakeholder collaboration and systems change.

How can we learn from these experiences to dramatically advance opportunities for early learning in Montana? This is the work I will be doing this next year, with support from the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation. Let me know if you’d like to talk with me about how, working together, we can have an impact on the communities we live in, and the lives we share.

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