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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan condemns 30,000 kids to bad start

Anybody who cares about Michigan’s future should know these facts:

  • Children learn the quickest and best from birth to age 5.
  • Early childhood learning programs, especially for poor, minority and vulnerable kids, result in much, much better progress through school and sharply increased graduation rates.
  • Return on investment in pre-kindergarten programs is as high as 18 times, if you include reduced grade repetition and remediation, increased likelihood of good jobs and stable marriages, and diminished likelihood of anti-social behavior and jail time.
  • There are 77,000 jobs in our state that can’t be filled for lack of workers with adequate skills.

None of this is particularly new. What’s amazing – and infuriating – is how slowly state public policy has responded to them.

In Michigan, we spend $13.4 billion annually on our K-12 school system, about $1 billion per grade. The main state early childhood learning program -- the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) -- gets $109 million a year.

What we spend on early childhood programs amounts to little more than a rounding error of what we spend on K-12. That’s absurd.  More, it looks uncomfortably like systemic denial of recognized facts.

The case for investing in early childhood education emerges from three different places:

Schools: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan says that pre-K programs are fundamental to school reform. “They’re the game-changer,” he says.  “We simply can’t get to third grade reading proficiency without them.  It’s impossible.”

The Michigan School Aid Act breaks school funding into two different buckets, early childhood and K-12. Given the political reality that most discussions about education funding are zero-sum in nature – “if you spend more on pre-K, you’ll by definition spend less on K-12, which is simply unacceptable” – it’s fascinating that Flanagan, the top school official in the state, supports increasing spending on early childhood.

But it’s easy to understand. Flanagan realizes that children who go through early childhood programs are more likely to meet reading benchmarks and graduate from high school. And they’re less likely to have to repeat grades and require less remediation. Translation: Early childhood programs save schools lots of money.

Employers: Listen in on almost any conversation among Michigan business leaders and you’ll hear complaints that they can’t find qualified and skilled workers to fill the jobs that are available.

“We’re in competition with the rest of the world for skills and talent,” says Cascade Engineering CEO Fred Keller. “The best way I know to get the kind of skilled work force we all need is to improve our schools by starting kids learning as early as possible.”

For years, Michigan employers have complained about an unskilled work force and, as well, about how much money is being wasted by having to remediate workers who should have learned key skills by the time the leave school. Many business people see the state’s school system as unresponsive, bureaucratic and ineffective.

And many of them are realizing that early childhood programs are the closest thing we have to a game-changer for our entire school system. The West Michigan Policy Conference in Grand Rapids just voted to make early childhood programs among its top five priorities.

Kids and their families: High-quality preschool is a proven strategy significantly to improve kindergarten readiness, grade-school reading and math proficiency and ultimately result in high school graduation and college admission. Many parents instinctively know that: nine out of 10 American families in upper income brackets send their 4-year-olds to preschool.

But lower income families – sometimes broken, often poor, unemployed and minority – can’t get their kids into preschool programs. They know that the state’s Great Start Readiness Program works, but they can’t get their kids admitted, even though they are eligible. Research done by the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine shows that 40 percent of all Michigan 4-year-olds who are eligible for federal- or state-funded preschool are not enrolled.

That’s 30,000 at-risk kids who could benefit enormously from free preschool, but cannot because there aren’t enough seats; because many don’t have transportation; and because there are few incentives or outreach programs to grow GSRP enrollment to families that could most benefit from the program.

The “forgotten 30,000” highlights what may well be the most critical public policy issue facing our state today. Everybody involved – schools, businesses, families – knows the present system doesn’t make sense. But for years, virtually nothing has been done.

This week, Bridge Magazine kicks off a two-week series of unique explanatory reporting designed to explore the issues surrounding early childhood. We’ll look into the facts, explore the benefits, examine the ins and outs, and try to understand why changing the existing system has proven so difficult.  Most important, we’ll put a human face on a subject that up to now has largely been confined to statistics.

We believe it’s among the most important things we’ve ever done at Bridge Magazine. After you’ve read our stories, we hope you agree.

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.

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