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Talent & education

Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds:

Key senator says state must make long-term commitment to preschool funding

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, made headlines recently when he proposed adding $140 million to the 2013-14 budget for state-funded preschool. Bridge spoke to him about his proposal, the hurdles the proposal might face and why he’s become an outspoken advocate for early childhood education.

Bridge: You proposed $140 million in additional funding for preschool – more than double what is spent now. That raised some eyebrows in Lansing.

Sen. Roger Kahn, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, backs a $140 million increase to state funding for pre-K classes. (courtesy photo)

A: The $140 million is not the right way to look at it. What we need to recognize is the way we fund the K-12 education system is that there is a foundation grant per student; (but) we don’t fund early childhood that way. There’s a certain amount of money, and when that money is used up, there ain’t no more. What we need is for preschoolers to be considered in the same fashion as a fifth-grader or a kindergartener, and all of them will be funded. If we do that, the dollar figure becomes irrelevant. It just becomes it will be funded.

Bridge: How do you sell this idea to people who question why we are now paying for preschool for poor people? What do they get out of this?

A: The most convincing argument is that, studies show, the ones who go through (GSRP), 20 percent more of them graduate from high school, 20 percent more get jobs, 20 percent more have steady marriages, 20 percent less of them need special education; 20 percent more are taxpayers. (The actual data is here.) On top of that … what is the life of the kid like? They have a clearly demonstrated better life. Does it work for everybody? No, it doesn’t work for everybody, but it pays for itself — and it improves our kids’ lives.

Bridge: What legislative hurdles to increased preschool funding do you expect?

A: You have to have a long view of the commitment you are making. Legislators tend to think in two-year terms. Michigan has been badly hurt economically over the last 10 years. If you’re going to expend dollars today, the initial tendency is to expect an immediate payoff. If you’re going to do this, you can’t stop it for at least a dozen years and expect to get any analysis that’s worthwhile. So this becomes a commitment for a line item that consumes some of our resources for many years. And even in good times, programs compete with each other for scarce resources. And in bad times, the competition is more fierce.

Bridge: About 40 percent of eligible children are not in any state or federal preschool program.

A: We knew in 1970 the stuff we know now. And we’ve lost three generations since then because we didn’t address it back then. We just didn’t find the will to fund it.

Bridge: Is there will today?

A: We’re getting better. This has got a pretty good chance. Early childhood was something I advocated for back when I was in the House. You have to plant the seeds and water it. Sometimes it’s someone else who harvests it.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011, after winning more than 40 state and national journalism awards at The Detroit News. See more stories by him here.

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