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.