By Gov. Steve Bullock | June 18, 2021
A quality education system is the bedrock of an active, vibrant economy and a pathway to opportunity for our children. When we invest in education, we’re not only investing in their future but also the future of American competitiveness. We’re helping to secure their economic future as well as our own.
But for the one in five students who live in rural America—roughly 9 million kids— physical isolation, a lack of rural broadband, and low population density too often impact access to quality education. That’s why passing President Biden’s American Families Plan is so critical for students in rural communities across the country.
As Governor of Montana, I worked with Democrats and Republicans in advancing a long term, sustainable publicly funded preschool program. Our initial pilot program showed a 21 percent overall increase in school readiness, with 93 percent of participants ready for kindergarten at the end of the year. On average, 97 percent of family survey respondents felt engaged with the preschool classroom and their child’s education.
While Montana lacks a permanent program, the American Families Plan would provide free universal preschool to all 3- and 4-year old’s, a monumental step toward universal pre-K in rural communities and a historic national investment in the education of America’s next generation that will benefit 5 million kids nationwide.
We also know that young children can’t be successful without a stable environment and food on the table. According to Feeding America, 86 percent of counties with high child food insecurity are rural. The American Families Plan will slash childhood hunger and expand both the school meal and summer EBT feeding programs. A focus on healthier food and, in high poverty schools, the ability to provide free meals to all students will improve health and wellness while helping to break down the stigma around free and reduced lunch.
President Biden also understands the importance of quality childcare and the stability it offers children and parents alike. As a young Senator and single dad, he took the train from Washington home to Delaware to tuck in his kids every night. Those values are reflected in the American Families Plan, which prioritizes increasing affordability, expanding access, and investing in the childcare workforce—one of the most underpaid professions in the nation—to ensure those meeting this critical need earn a living wage. For the majority of rural families who live in childcare “deserts” with little to no options, the investments this plan makes will be a godsend.
During my tenure as Governor, I led the charge to freeze college tuition in Montana and we focused not just on helping students obtain associate’s degrees but preparing them for apprenticeships and recognized certificates in high-demand fields. The American Families Plan’s two years of free community college for first-time students and workers looking to retrain for a new career is critical to significantly lowering the overall cost of higher education in this country. Well-trained workers across various technical, mechanical, and trade fields are vitally important to a vibrant rural economy not just in Montana, but in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia. With so many Americans re-entering a workforce and economy that have been dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in workforce development programs and expand the benefits of economic growth to all Americans.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the American Families Plan is “a generation-defining investment in rural America.” He could not be more right. Bold, thoughtful policy initiatives that will make a real, lasting difference for everyday Americans are exactly what rural communities need at a time of such economic uncertainty.
President Biden’s focus on lifting up rural folks is a welcome change in our country. I urge all Americans to call their members of Congress and tell them to support the American Families Plan—not just for themselves, but for the next generation.
Steve Bullock served as Governor of Montana from 2013-2021. He is now a co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century.