And so they gathered on the porch of the Grand Hotel Wednesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference to call for publicly funded preschool for 38,000 eligible 4-year-old children currently shut out of existing programs. It would cost, they estimated, around $130 million, which isn't a little. But if they're ignored, they could cost the public far more in coming years, they said.
Debbie Dingell, speaking on behalf of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, said every public dollar spent in the critical early years of life pays off with $7 not spent later on. She and others pointed out that studies are clear that money invested in preschool and similar programs before a child ever shows up in kindergarten pays off in school success, college and job readiness, emotional stability and more.
"Business has to be the voice for these children," she said. "I am so worried about education in this state."
And while it appears Michigan businesses are getting on board with the idea that education must begin at birth, not at kindergarten, the road to better-funded, more widely available preschool will not be an easy one. The proposal released Wednesday did not endorse a tax increase or specify a funding method to extend services to the 38,000 youngsters.
"It's an education issue," said Leslie Murphy, a CPA and another member of the Children's Leadership Council. "It's a cultural issue. It's a historical issue."
Murphy pointed out that the science on early brain development, which underlies the argument for excellent early childhood education, has only developed over the last 10-20 years, and that policymakers are only now reconciling that public education must begin earlier.
But it must be led by the business community, she said, because the issue is so closely linked to economic development and public spending in general.
"In my dark moments, I think (funding for early childhood programs) should be taken out of the Corrections budget," said Susan Broman, director of the Michigan Office of Great Start, the governor's initiative. "They'll see the savings down the road."
It's a mordant observation, but one that was underlined over and over, both at the press conference and at an earlier panel discussion hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. One-third of Michigan kindergarteners arrive at school unprepared to learn, several panelists said. Seventy percent of fourth-graders aren't proficient readers. These shortfalls set the stage for a lifetime of failure at school and in the workplace.
"The evidence is so compelling," said Paul Hillegonds, former speaker of the Michigan House and now a vice president at DTE Energy. Early-childhood spending saves, per dollar, between $2-$11 in corrections costs, and "$100,000 over a lifetime in miscellaneous costs."
But even if it didn't, it pays off in other areas, something Hillegonds said he learned while looking at private-sector programs, many of them run by corporations.
"Those people whose children were in quality care were more engaged, had less absenteeism, were better workers overall," he said, all of which helps the state stay competitive in the national economy.
So if the case is so clear, if the argument makes so much sense, why has it been so slow in coming?
"This is the choir," said Mike Flanagan, superintendent of public instruction, during the panel's Q-and-A segment. "How do we finally get people past nodding, clapping and saying, 'How do we do this?' How do we help legislators hear this voice and not the back room voice of lobbyists … and say something has to change?"
Hillegonds suggested that rising revenues from the state's improving economy be dedicated to the effort. Also, "some alliances are forming to support this. But this needs the governor's leadership."
Dingell said that if the Legislature can't hear the voices of 100 business leaders, they will hear the voices of many more soon.
"We'll double this in a month," she said of the signatories. "At least."
* The Center for Michigan, Bridge's parent organization, is a member of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan.
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.