By Ron French/Bridge Magazine
Nobody needs to convince Kelly Hart of the importance of early childhood education. The Flushing woman is the mother of five children who’ve gone through the Great Start Readiness Program, the state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.
“I’ve always loved the program,” Hart said. “We’ve been lucky to have our kids in it. But there are a lot of families who don’t get the chance because there isn’t the funding for everybody who needs it.
Michigan residents agree.
In the largest effort ever to collect and analyze public opinion on K-12 education, Michigan taxpayers overwhelmingly supported an expansion of early childhood opportunities.
More than 7,500 Michiganians voice their views in the Center for Michigan’s* report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education.” In more than 250 community meetings across the state and in two scientific polls, residents offered a clear message to Lansing leaders: early childhood education is a good investment.
“Expanding early education is the most important priority,” said a community conversation participant in Grand Rapids. “We could prepare them for the challenges that they are going to face later on in life. The younger you start the better off you’re going to be.”
Three-quarters strongly back more preschool
Three out of every four community conversation participants (and 68 percent in polls) said expansion of the state’s early childhood program is “crucial” or “important.” Support was strong in virtually every demographic group – low income and high income, whites and African Americans, workers and employers, educators and parents.
“I love the idea of early childhood because those kids are willing to learn, they are sponges,” said another community conversation participant in Grand Rapids. Without it, “… that child is going to fall behind.”
Several studies have found that students who enrolled in the Great Start program did better throughout their academic careers, dropped out of school at a lower rate, had higher incomes as adults and were imprisoned less frequently than children who didn’t attend preschool.
Community conversation participants offered many reasons for supporting preschool expansion, including the notions of leveling the playing field for all children and providing a solid foundation for academic success.
The Great Start Readiness Program provides free preschool to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. A family of four qualifies for the program if their income is under $69,000 a year.
But a report in Bridge Magazine in September revealed that more than 29,000 Michigan children who qualify for Great Start are not in classrooms, because of inadequate funding, logistical hurdles and inconsistent coordination of services.
It could cost about $200 million in additional state funds to fully enroll all 4-year-olds who qualify under the income guidelines.
Even after hearing the potential cost of expansion, Michigan residents supported more state-funded preschool.
“Just three weeks from the state prison budget would fund this for the kids who need it most,” said a community conversation participant. We should make that investment on the front end.”
“I think a lot of people in all age categories understand the importance of early childhood education, whether they have a child, grandchild, niece or nephew,” said Beth Hackett, coordinator of the Great Start Collaborative at the Genesee County Intermediate School District.
“They understand that K-12 education has become more rigorous and to do well they need a good foundation in early childhood.”
St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency has increased spending on early childhood education to try to get more kids in preschool. “It’s very important,” said St. Clair RESA Superintendent Dan DeGrow.
But funding preschool is difficult in the state Legislature, because “you don’t see the results for 12-14 years,” said DeGrow, who previously served in the Legislature. In Lansing, “Everybody is worried about the next election.”
Voices grow for early childhood investment
Still, momentum is growing for more preschool funding. State School Superintendent Mike Flanagan called for an expansion of more than $100 million for the 2013-14 budget year.
“We all talk about early; childhood, but we do nothing about it,” Flanagan told Bridge last fall. “We can’t get to third-grade reading proficiency without it. It’s impossible.”
Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in August he would pursue a $140 million early childhood expansion.
“I believe that this study shows that people want us to provide early childhood education for more of our kids,” Kahn said. “And you need to do it now.”
Gov. Rick Snyder called for more funding for Great Start in his State of the State speech last week.
That preschool push has the backing of the Michigan business community – 80 percent of employers in community conversations (and 68 percent in polls) supported an expansion of early childhood education.
A preschool expansion is backed by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan – a group made up of business leaders – as well as Business Leaders of Michigan.
“Business leaders believe we need to spend more on the ‘bookends’ of the education system – pre-school and college,” said Doug Rothwell, president of BLM. “Kids that participate in a good preschool experience have more success in life yet we spend less than 1% of the K-12 budget on it.”
In Flushing, Hart’s five children are succeeding in school – something Hart traces back to the leg-up they received in the Great Start program. “Many more people could benefit from it,” she said.
*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine.
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.