After preschool gains, Michigan should now turn to 0-3 child policies

Five years ago, when people talked about improving our schools, almost no one was speaking about pre-kindergarten programs. But today, pre-K programs appear to be an established part of state educational policy.

Last week, I attended a conference at Central Michigan University, “Early Childhood: Shifting Mindsets,” where a series of policy makers and policy implementers spoke to an audience of several hundred about this remarkable change in priorities.

Over the past three years, for instance, Michigan has more than doubled state support for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), aimed at poor and vulnerable four-year-olds. In the just-adopted budget for fiscal year 2016, the state legislature added $31.5 million in support for early literacy programs.

Changes like that don’t happen often. And it’s worth taking a look at how all this came about. It started with child development research evidence that had been building up over decades – and which proved children from birth to age five learn fastest and best.

In Michigan, the Ypsilanti-based High Scope Educational Research Foundation conducted long-term experiments that found children who enrolled in GSRP were 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who did not.

In September 2012, the Center for Michigan’s online magazine Bridge ran a series of investigative stories about, “Forgotten 4-year-olds” about the roughly 30,000 Michigan four-year-olds who were eligible to participate in GSRP but who were unable to enter the program for lack of slots or due to other bureaucratic hurdles.

Why couldn’t they? In large part because the legislature only allocated a bit more than $100 million to the program, in contrast to the $1 billion per grade it appropriated for kindergarten through high school.

But public interest in early childhood programs had been growing since 2010, when thousands of Michigan citizens who participated in the Center for Michigan’s public engagement community conversations called improving the schools our number one priority – and pointed to early childhood as the best place to start.

The business community was quick to follow, recognizing that the quality and skills of the state’s labor force were a direct result of the quality of schools. Fewer skilled workers and productive workers mean decreasingly profitable businesses.

The umbrella organization, Business Leaders for Michigan, and the 130-odd employers represented in Michigan Children’s Leadership Council weighed in. Economic analysis suggested that returns on investment in early childhood could run as high as 18 times.

Political leaders were quick to pick up on the idea that citizen priorities were backed by powerful research. Governor Snyder in a 2012 fall meeting told me that “it isn’t a question of whether we increase state spending on pre-K, but when and how much.”

The very next day, entirely out of the blue, State Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) called for a $140 million increase in state support for GSRP. Though he is now out of office thanks to term limits, he was then the chair of the powerful appropriations committee.

Once he was aboard, it was all over but the shouting. The legislature adopted two successive years of $65 million increases for early childhood programs, and early childhood emerged as an important part of state educational policy.

Speakers at last week’s conference emphasized that now the focus is shifting a bit to concentrate on mothers and children during and shortly after pregnancy. This is a subject that Bridge has also addressed, in a project published earlier this year, “Paying for children, now or later.” National research by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants and the Citizens Research Council showed that certain kinds of programs show strong returns on investment:

  • Healthy Mother, Healthy Baby. A mother’s health directly affects that of her child, which in turn affects the baby’s learning ability. Kent County has been experimenting with something called a “Medical Home,” which connects doctors and nurses with expectant mothers and just-born children.
  • Home Visits. Too many mothers are single, young, poor, uneducated and lacking in the kind of experience in parenting that extended families offered in the past. Home visits by nurses and other experienced professionals can help confused and often frightened young mothers learn the enormously important skills of parenting that give their babies the best possible start in life.
  • Good Child Care. Many parents need child care, especially when they’re working at jobs and trying to survive as a family. But “child care” as another name for cheap “babysitting” won’t hack it. Child caretakers need to be just as concerned and capable of dealing with a child’s learning development as a parent would be.

Naturally, it’s going to take time before programs aimed at children and mothers from birth to three accumulate the kind of public support and political clout that GSRP has gained. But the same factors that drove Michigan to the top of the charts for early childhood should bear fruit with mothers and infants from birth.

When they do, uncounted thousands of children will benefit. But then so will we all, as citizens of a happier, more prosperous state.

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Comments

John S Porter
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 10:12am
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. The smaller the twig, the greater the impact on the tree. Unfortunately, there is no teacher union promoting funding for preschool, prenatal, or neonatal services. (Perhaps there is such a thing, but I haven't heard of it.) I suspect that such funding would be fought like hell if it meant slightly less funding for existing educational programs.
Donna Anuskiewicz
Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:29am
Well said. And there's lots of supporting evidence. Thanks again for hitting the bullseye.
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 8:34am
Thank you for the comments. This issue has become my new mantra. We cannot break the cycle of poverty and a poorly developed workforce unless we are able to provide high quality child care. Every child and family deserves the opportunity to have access, regardless of income, race or ethnicity. Knowing your child is in a safe place, learning and growing results in a more productive workforce and allows for educational opportunities to be successful.
Steve
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 9:45am
Children need all the opportunities they can get. However, I disagree with giving that job to the dilapidated, dysfunctional public school system. This is exactly what is happening because the money follows. It's definitely the case with GSRP. Local ISD's administer it and dole out spots to public schools first. If there are more spots they are offered to private schools. Offering spots to "community partners" is a requirement but the ISD does a lot to discourage private schools from taking any children. Do you want the State and the public schools telling you how to raise your child from birth through the start of a career? I don't.
Duane
Wed, 06/10/2015 - 12:07pm
I wonder why Mr. Power shows no interest in follow through. He and the speakers [per his reporting] seem to have avoided the topic of verification of impact, accountability, for the spending. Right now we have 'good intentions' and a whole lot of money to be spent and yet no desire for verification of spending effectiveness. Why do people who so want to spend other people's money make no effort to see that Michigan is gets expected value for that spending? What is so wrong with regularly checking on what the programs are deliverying to see if they need to be modified to achieve the desired results? Why can't we include such program accountability into the spending request/authorizations? Are people so afraid of that it may reflect on them that they are willing to risk failing the children, fainling Michigan? Could it be that they spend all their time and energy on getting the spending they have not learned the value and the methods that well planned accountability can deliver? Why are they so willing to allow the pre-K efforts go the way of Michigan's K-12 system? Why don't we have a discussion of what accountability can be and how it can be a benefit to the people/students/children we can to help succeed?
Steve
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 3:44pm
Duane, I agree.
Karen
Fri, 06/12/2015 - 10:17pm
Duane, there is a system of checks for the programs. Ingham ISD has early childhood specialists that regularly visit the classrooms under their care. They are responsible for evaluating each classroom using the PQA (Program Quality Assessment) developed by Highscope. They are checking to make sure that anecdotal records are entered in the Teaching Strategies Gold, a system that tracks a child's developmental progress. It can be used to track children from birth through kindergarten. My school is also involved with tracking children that have been to preschool through their third grade. We look at the progress of those involved in preschool versus those that were not. So far the preschool children are outperforming their non preschool peers. Nationally only 65% of children entering kindergarten know the alphabet. Preschool for all four year old children can help to raise that to 100%! I suggest that you check out some of the high quality preschools in your area, you will be surprised at all of the learning going on in those little minds!
Duane
Sat, 06/13/2015 - 4:27pm
Karen, That is very encouraging. Is that something that the legislators include in the law or is that a local practice, or a local process? As part of the program are they identifying the different degrees of success and investigating the more successful to better understand why and how success is happening? How are the finding shared and used? If I contacted my ISD what should I be asking for? Should ask aout PQA findings, Teaching Strategies?Gold
roger
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 10:47am
Power...'Founder of bi-partisan think and do tank...designed to cure the dysfunctional political culture' come on Phil you have been a major contributor of the current circumstances. Your advocacy scares the bejeebers out of me, you're looking more like Orwell's 1984 with every missive. Yep, taking control of rearing the children at '0' frightens the heck out of me. Let me see, I'm to trust the 'State' to nurture the child, this same state that can't screen folks at an airport, that can't balance its books at the Federal level, that can't keep their fingers out of the 'till' and gorges itself at the public trough. Yep, the answer surely lies in the 'nanny' state paid for with other peoples money. What the heck happened to 'parenting'. Oh, yes there are a million excuses for the why's and why not's. Place the responsibility, not the blame, where it belongs...its called parenting.
Steve
Thu, 06/11/2015 - 3:45pm
I agree, Roger.
Rich
Sun, 06/14/2015 - 10:58am
If a goal of pre-school education is to break the endless cycle of poverty, and if "too many mothers are single, young, poor, uneducated, and lacking in the kind of experience that extended families offered in the past", then one has to question why we continue to throw money at the result of this problem rather than the root of this problem. Might the perceived notion that one can get more support by having more kids play some role in the reason for so many kids in poverty?