For the first time in years, the door to far-reaching school reform in Michigan is gradually creaking open.
But will it stay open?
Over the past two weeks, Bridge, the Center for Michigan’s online magazine, has been running a series on early childhood learning programs -- something virtually all experts and educators call the essential step to later success. The big (but infuriating) takeaway:
There are 30,000 4-year-olds in Michigan who qualify for the state’s early childhood program, Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), but are not enrolled.
The Bridge articles dubbed them “Michigan's forgotten 4-year-olds." They’re not only forgotten, they’re left out of a program that should enroll all children who want and need it.
The issue of pre-kindergarten learning programs is not just an insider policy debate among child development experts. It’s the cutting edge of a reform program that could fundamentally reshape Michigan schools -- for the better.
Listen to Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, speaking at a July meeting called by the governor to discuss school reform: “We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it. (There is an) opportunity here and I don’t think it’s going to come along again … It’s a game-changer.”
Without any doubt, a game-changer is exactly what’s needed. For years, parents, employers and even students have complained about a system they see as under-performing, expensive and deeply resistant to change.
Many Michigan leaders have come to regard sharply increased early childhood programs as a realistic route to getting there. So the Center for Michigan decided to try to find some answers. Working together with Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based research firm, CFM developed some options. They were supported in this by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a group of business leaders who argue that increasing early childhood learning programs assures, in the long run, a skilled and competitive work force. In the shorter run, we believe that could mean a far more productive school system.
These options include:
* Converting Great Start to a full-day preschool program – because full-day preschool results in much better educational outcomes and makes for easier access for working families.
* Fund transportation for Great Start students. Many families without transportation have to see school buses pass by without picking up their kids.
* Invest modestly in outreach programs to enroll the hardest-to-reach at-risk children.
* Increase Great Start funding to add incentives to enrollment efforts by both public schools and private providers. Many intermediate school district superintendents contend current GSRP funding actually costs them money.
* Open GSRP more widely to private providers, especially when public schools can’t manage to increase enrollment.
* Require clear metrics measuring success in kindergarten readiness and grade-level reading and math proficiency.
Best estimates are that such a program could result in a 40 percent increase in Great Start enrollment, from 23,200 to 32,400. That would result in 58,000 4-year-olds in Michigan being served by some form of formal public preschool – GSRP, Head Start, special education or other specialized programs.
That’s not enough, but it would be nearly half our state’s total population of 4-year-olds.
Such a program is beginning to make Lansing heavyweights sit up and take notice. Flanagan wants to add $130 million a year to the $109 million the state currently spends on GSRP. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, has publicly endorsed a $140 million increase. Other lawmakers and senior officials in the Snyder administration are making approving noises – though nowhere is there support for any tax increases to help pay for increased funding.
Discussions of early childhood programs bring up much larger issues of school finance reform, issues first raised by Gov. Rick Snyder’s call in 2011 for a seamless P-20 (preschool through college) human capital investment system in Michigan.
Sadly, Great Start funding today is the reverse of that for traditional K-12 education. State school aid provides schools with a set amount for every student who enrolls. But for GSRP, schools are allotted a set amount of money, which they parcel out in “slots” that determine how many 4-year-olds can be enrolled. That has many outcomes, one of which is the “forgotten 30,000,” the kids who never get a chance at Great Start programs.
The financial consequence of this is a classic case of being penny-wise and pound foolish. Michigan spends nearly $14 billion a year on kindergarten through high school education, or nearly $1 billion per grade. The entire GSRP program gets $109 million a year, barely a rounding error when dealing with figures that large.
The governor has given Lansing insider Richard McLellan the job of overhauling the state’s School Aid Act, a 178-page monstrosity originally passed in 1979, and repeatedly amended since. Now under consideration: Wiping out the differences in funding systems for K-12 and GSRP.
When you look at all of this, the case for increasing early childhood learning programs and revising the way the state funds investments in children, the possibility of the largest reform in our school system since Proposal A was passed in 1994 emerges.
Momentum is building. The door to reform seems to be swinging open – but that’s no guarantee it will stay there.
Opportunities like these are rare, precious and priceless. And anyone with a stake in Michigan needs to join in.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.