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Opinion: Want to boost 3rd-grade reading? Expand Michigan’s free preschool

In Michigan, there are four-year olds who get off to a great start in the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) pre-school.

There are others who get a head start through the federal Head Start program.

Michael Rice is Michigan State Superintendent. Casandra Ulbrich is president of the State Board of Education.
Michael Rice is Michigan State Superintendent. Casandra Ulbrich is president of the State Board of Education.

Finally, there are children who have access to neither a great start nor a head start: they get no pre-school whatsoever.

Right now, there are three possibilities in Michigan for four-year-old children in low-income families: Great Start, Head Start, and No Early Start in Public Education. To expand pre-school to all eligible four-year-olds would make it possible for all to begin with a strong start, including in early literacy.

Related: Whitmer pitches big expansion of Michigan’s free preschool for 4-year-olds

In the last few weeks, thousands of parents in Michigan have received notices required by state law to inform them that their third-grade students have been identified for retention next year because they are not reading at a third grade level. One of the best ways to improve literacy is to ensure that all children get off to a great start in having an early childhood education experience – at a minimum, a full-day, high-quality, four-year-old pre-school experience.

If we’re looking for positive, research-based approaches to improved school and life outcomes, high-quality pre-school, not third grade retentions, should be at the top of the list.

Prior to the pandemic, GSRP provided pre-school to roughly 37,000 four-year olds annually. Head Start served another 5,000 four-year olds. With an estimated 64,000 annually eligible for one of these publicly funded pre-school programs, 22,000 four-year olds annually – approximately one-third of those eligible – missed out.

This is unacceptable. We can and should do better in Michigan.

Fully funding all four-year-old students eligible for GSRP is Goal 1 of Michigan’s Top 10 Strategic Education Plan, approved by the State Board of Education in August 2020. GSRP expansion is the foundation upon which all other educational goals of Michigan’s Top 10 Strategic Education Plan rest. There is research that dates to the 1960s on the efficacy of pre-school. Pre-school pays significant dividends in outcomes for children and adults.

Through GSRP, Michigan is recognized as one of just a few states rated top in the nation in pre-school quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR) at Rutgers University. At the same time, NIERR ranks Michigan 21st in access.

Universal preschool would make us first in the nation in quality and first in access. That is where we need to be to fully support our children.

Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her plan to fund preschool over the next three years for all children at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty limit, the current standard for GSRP preschool eligibility in the state. The plan wisely uses federal dollars to begin the expansion of GSRP preschool, with the State Aid Fund sustaining the program in future years.

Investing federal pandemic relief funds to jumpstart an expansion in early childhood education is one of the gifts that keep on giving for our kids and schools that the Michigan Department of Education has recommended to local educational leaders. We are appreciative and strongly supportive of the governor’s commitment to GSRP and Michigan’s young children.

In 2013 and 2014, Governor Rick Snyder recommended and the Michigan Legislature approved more than a doubling of the funding to expand GSRP preschool slots. It’s well past time for us to provide GSRP preschool for all eligible students.

We urge the state legislature to help all students get a strong start in their education as a means of improving children’s chances for success both in school and later in life.

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