Thousands of low-and moderate-income children took a step closer to the preschool classroom with Wednesday night's call for additional early childhood investment by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in his State of the State address.
Snyder noted that 29,000 children are eligible for the state's Great Start Readiness Program, but can't get in because there aren't enough slots due to limited funding. He said he will seek to reduce that number with his fiscal 2014 budget, which would run from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014.
"I don't believe we can accomplish all of that, and I'm open to coming up with creative ideas to get there," he said. "It's important for us to make a major budget commitment to get as many kids in as possible and get us on a path to getting all those kids in Great Start and early childhood programs."
Early childhood advocates have been making their case for years. But prospects have improved dramatically with support from Snyder, as well as Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Both House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Kahn have said they want more money placed in early childhood.
"I'm pretty sure that the 25,000 members of the Great Start network and advocates everywhere are probably still clapping," said Judy Samelson, chief executive officer of the Early Childhood Investment Corp., a parent advocacy group.
Snyder is expected to unveil his spending proposal and the source of the funding in his Feb. 7 budget message in Lansing.
Bridge Magazine reported in September that about 30,000 Michigan children were denied the opportunity for preschool programs, largely because of insufficient state funds.
Research consistently shows that there are huge short-term and long-term costs from the lack of preschool experiences for at-risk children. In the short run, thousands of children are held back in kindergarten each year. Children who go to pre-school are more likely to graduate from high school and college, more likely to hold good jobs, and less likely to commit crimes.
Advocates are hoping that Snyder will both increase the number of slots and the per-child funding, which is currently at $3,400. Michigan is spending about $100 million this year on early childhood.
"One problem with the Great Start Readiness Program right now is the funding per kid is insufficient to run a quality program," said Timothy Bartik, a senior economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research who has studied such investments. "Basically, the only way you can run a quality program is to have some cross-subsidies from somewhere else, and that's becoming increasingly difficult."
Susan Broman, director of the Michigan Office of Great Start, said the Department of Education requested $130 million to expand the Great Start Readiness Program, provide transportation and increase outreach so that families know about the program. She said that might be sufficient funding to provide for three quarters of those who currently are eligible for the program but not enrolled.
The Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of School Administrators, Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals put out a statement expressing support for expanding early childhood education -- as long as the funding doesn't come at the expense of K-12 schools.
"This program is a crucial part of Michigan's public school system and deserves to be expanded," the statement said. "But the education community will not support funding early childhood programs at the expense of Michigan’s other school students, in light of the major cuts that K-12 education has borne over the past two years."
Scott Menzel, superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, said he would like to see a dedicated revenue stream to support early childhood education so that it is not competing with K-12 for money.
John Bebow, executive director of the Center for Michigan*, which is a member of the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, said he was thrilled that Snyder has expansion of preschool on his list of key priorities for 2013. It matches a priority of citizens who have taken part in the Center's community conversations.
"We've seen from the governor before, that he telegraphs where he wants to go and then he works hard to get there," Bebow said. "We feel it's a great step to have this early childhood expansion priority."
Paula Cunningham, another member of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, said all Michigan residents have a stake in investing in young children:
"We can talk about economic development all we want, but it really starts with making the case for expanding public preschool for 4-year-olds. "All the research has proven that that makes a difference in the quality of life as well as in the educational attainment of any child."
Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.