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Phil Power is founder and chairman
of the Center for Michigan.

Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds:

Encourage lawmakers to take action on preschool funding gaps

For the first time in years, the door to far-reaching school reform in Michigan is gradually creaking open.

But will it stay open?

Over the past two weeks, Bridge, the Center for Michigan’s online magazine, has been running a series on early childhood learning programs — something virtually all experts and educators call the essential step to later success. The big (but infuriating) takeaway:

There are 30,000 4-year-olds in Michigan who qualify for the state’s early childhood program, Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), but are not enrolled. 

The Bridge articles dubbed them “Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds.” They’re not only forgotten, they’re left out of a program that should enroll all children who want and need it.

The issue of pre-kindergarten learning programs is not just an insider policy debate among child development experts. It’s the cutting edge of a reform program that could fundamentally reshape Michigan schools — for the better.

Listen to Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, speaking at a July meeting called by the governor to discuss school reform: “We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it.  (There is an) opportunity here and I don’t think it’s going to come along again … It’s a game-changer.”

Without any doubt, a game-changer is exactly what’s needed. For years, parents, employers and even students have complained about a system they see as under-performing, expensive and deeply resistant to change.

Many Michigan leaders have come to regard sharply increased early childhood programs as a realistic route to getting there. So the Center for Michigan decided to try to find some answers. Working together with Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based research firm, CFM developed some options. They were supported in this by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a group of business leaders who argue that increasing early childhood learning programs assures, in the long run, a skilled and competitive work force. In the shorter run, we believe that could mean a far more productive school system.

These options include:

* Converting Great Start to a full-day preschool program – because full-day preschool results in much better educational outcomes and makes for easier access for working families.

* Fund transportation for Great Start students. Many families without transportation have to see school buses pass by without picking up their kids.

* Invest modestly in outreach programs to enroll the hardest-to-reach at-risk children.

* Increase Great Start funding to add incentives to enrollment efforts by both public schools and private providers. Many intermediate school district superintendents contend current GSRP funding actually costs them money.

* Open GSRP more widely to private providers, especially when public schools can’t manage to increase enrollment.

* Require clear metrics measuring success in kindergarten readiness and grade-level reading and math proficiency.

Best estimates are that such a program could result in a 40 percent increase in Great Start enrollment, from 23,200 to 32,400. That would result in 58,000 4-year-olds in Michigan being served by some form of formal public preschool – GSRP, Head Start, special education or other specialized programs. 

That’s not enough, but it would be nearly half our state’s total population of 4-year-olds.

Such a program is beginning to make Lansing heavyweights sit up and take notice. Flanagan wants to add $130 million a year to the $109 million the state currently spends on GSRP. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, has publicly endorsed a $140 million increase.  Other lawmakers and senior officials in the Snyder administration are making approving noises – though nowhere is there support for any tax increases to help pay for increased funding.

Discussions of early childhood programs bring up much larger issues of school finance reform, issues first raised by Gov. Rick Snyder’s call in 2011 for a seamless P-20 (preschool through college) human capital investment system in Michigan. 

Sadly, Great Start funding today is the reverse of that for traditional K-12 education. State school aid provides schools with a set amount for every student who enrolls. But for GSRP, schools are allotted a set amount of money, which they parcel out in “slots” that determine how many 4-year-olds can be enrolled. That has many outcomes, one of which is the “forgotten 30,000,” the kids who never get a chance at Great Start programs.

The financial consequence of this is a classic case of being penny-wise and pound foolish. Michigan spends nearly $14 billion a year on kindergarten through high school education, or nearly $1 billion per grade. The entire GSRP program gets $109 million a year, barely a rounding error when dealing with figures that large.

The governor has given Lansing insider Richard McLellan the job of overhauling the state’s School Aid Act, a 178-page monstrosity originally passed in 1979, and repeatedly amended since. Now under consideration: Wiping out the differences in funding systems for K-12 and GSRP.

When you look at all of this, the case for increasing early childhood learning programs and revising the way the state funds investments in children, the possibility of the largest reform in our school system since Proposal A was passed in 1994 emerges.

Momentum is building. The door to reform seems to be swinging open – but that’s no guarantee it will stay there.

Opportunities like these are rare, precious and priceless. And anyone with a stake in Michigan needs to join in.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

2 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Duane

    “…virtually all experts and educators call the essential step to later success.” ‘essential’ implies that without it people are assured of failure. I wonder if Mr. Power and the experts are saying that all without pre-school are failures. I raise this point because every time I have heard that either success or failure hinges a certain part of educational funding it never seems to meet the claims and it always is asking for more money. I wonder what this success is to look like; Mr. Power never seems to say.

    “For years, parents, employers and even students have complained about a system they see as under-performing, expensive and deeply resistant to change.” It seems that pre-school is to give kids a ‘running start’ versus without pre-school they have a ‘standing start’, over the whole academic career if the course they are running is in disrepair and has many obstacles can Mr. Power or Mr. Flanagan assure us that even the kids with the ‘running start’ will not be failed by the system?

    “Many Michigan leaders have come to regard sharply increased early childhood programs as a realistic route to getting there.” If the only change to the system is pre-school and the same people that are in place, that would suggest that it is those kids with pre-school that will change the system and create success, I am a bit skeptical for I don’t understand how the kids will change things they have no control over.

    “a group of business leaders who argue that increasing early childhood learning programs assures, in the long run, a skilled and competitive work force.” Does that mean what is done in a year or two will not be affected by 13 years of full time schooling? I wonder if those business leaders are using the same criteria for assuring success as they do for programs and projects in their own businesses.

    “In the shorter run, we believe that could mean a far more productive school system.” Mr. Power will tell us how successful the productivity improvements are for he hasn’t given us any means to recognize the success.

    “Opportunities like these are rare, precious and priceless. And anyone with a stake in Michigan needs to join in.” The opportunity for change isn’t rare and it isn’t fleeting, it will be there until people are getting the results they want.
    I have heard how the next great program will save Michigan we only need a bit more money, and they all claim success except we still need the next great program. Is Mr. Power saying, ‘trust me it will save Michigan and we only need more money, but don’t hold us accountable.’? That sounds like déjà vu all over again.

    ‘Good intentions’, no accountability, and more money, it seems these opportunities come around every year. I wonder if we will ever hear from someone who so wants to change the education system that they will to let those with a stake in the results measure the performance and end the program if it doesn’t meet the claims.

    1. Marion

      Always love to read your comments. I agree, I would say, all of the time! The school system changed, at one point, from using phonics. What a disaster. It left a whole legacy of kids who today do not like to read. It took them longer to learn to read. It was a very poor experiment.
      It is the schools, not the children or their environment. It is not difficult to teach a child to read. If the child is having a problem, it is something the school is not teaching correctly (except in extreme cases, of course). This bandwagon is flying way too high and fast. As I’ve mentioned, I should be so happy – my granddaughter will now get FREE pre-school. Her parents won’t have to pay for daycare. Well, sorry, she will learn to count and say abc’s by the time she is 3 at home, and not on someone else’s dime. She could learn to read in normal school at the normal rate that us older folks did, with 12 years of schooling, and still go on to be what she wants in life. But now she will get free daycare, paid for by the taxpayers.

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