Early childhood funds in tug of war

(Originally published April 14, 2011)

In last year's gubernatorial campaign, candidate Rick Snyder touted the importance of pre-school education and outlined a vision of integrated P-20 education from birth through graduate school.  This year, Michigan early childhood advocates were pleased to see the new governor demonstrate his support with a fiscal 2012 budget proposal that left preschool funding largely unscathed.

Now, however, they fear that several years of progress in coordinating and improving services to children and families may be at risk. The biggest worry: A plan to eliminate funding that supports Great Start Collaboratives, the community-based consortiums that help guide services to meet local needs.

State Sen. Howard Walker (R-Traverse City) is circulating a draft proposal shifting all $6 million in state funding for the collaboratives to the larger Great Start Readiness Program, which funds programs. Walker says the money may be more effectively used by going directly into programs.

But many early childhood advocates say his plan will undo efforts to create a strategic vision and support effective, data-driven programs that achieve desired outcomes.

"Anyone involved in the system will tell you that this community-approach model is really working, and we're starting to see the benefits of it," said Matt Gillard, an early childhood consultant. "The cuts in the collaboratives would be a huge step backwards."

Michigan's Great Start program serves at-risk children 5 years old and younger in families with incomes slightly higher than those who qualify for the federal Head Start program. It focuses on pediatric and family health, social and emotional health, child care and early education, parenting leadership and family support.

It is a community-based initiative built around 54 Great Start Collaboratives around the state. There are also 70 Great Start Parent Coalitions to ensure parents' voices are heard. Each collaborative has created a comprehensive strategic plan based on local input and needs. The $6 million is used to hire full-time directors for the collaboratives and part-time liaisons for the parent coalitions. "This isn't necessarily a new concept. It's been tried before. But what was realized was that unless it was somebody's job to convene that group and to organize that group, and to move that group through the process and bring this stuff together, it doesn't get done," said Gillard.

Walker, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid, says he doesn't believe the money should go to the Early Childhood Investment Corp., a nonprofit public-private initiative created during Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration to establish and implement guidelines for early childhood activities. "Some of the messages we are receiving is this is a layer of government that isn't needed in order to get revenue directly to programs, so we're proposing to put it directly into the Great Start Readiness program," Walker said.

Actually, the money goes directly to Michigan's Intermediate School Districts, but it is conditioned on them having signed agreements with the ECIC. Advocates say the system is a work in progress, but families across the state are benefiting. In Midland, for instance, the Great Start Collaborative has developed a single point of entry for preschool with a single toll-free phone number and website.

K.P. Pelleran is executive director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit anti-crime group. She says the research is clear that strong early childhood programs make young children better prepared for school and more likely to graduate from high school on time. The Great Start Collaboratives, she said, play a vital role in aligning early childhood education and child care.

"That alignment has been working quite well through the Great Start Collaboratives in county after county," she said. "Why do we want to slit our throats on one hand and put the funds into another program (Great Start Readiness)? We need both."

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