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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Tue, 09/25/2012 - 9:43am
"Anybody who cares about Michigan’s future should know these facts:" Mr. Power do you know why those are facts? Mr. Power doesn't seem to consider that parents can and do a very successful job at raising their children, that those children go on to succeed in schools and life. I wonder if he has ever aasked why. "Return on investment in pre-kindergarten programs is as high as 18 times" he so conveniently pulls this number ou of his AIR. His claims suggest that there are many children who don't attend his version of pre-school have a less than successful life. "There are 77,000 jobs in our state that can’t be filled for lack of workers with adequate skills" Mr. Power is now claiming that lack of pre-school is leaving these jobs empty. I wonder how many welders have had Mr. Power's version of pre-school or any pre-school. "State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan...“They’re the game-changer,” he says. “We simply can’t get to third grade reading proficiency without them. It’s impossible.” This is amazing, I grew up in a time when there was no pre-school or at least noone in my school system had pre-school and yet they turned out doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers. It makes me wonder how the system worked then and why we have to have this "Game changer now." I haev heard this cry for a 'gamechanger' before, it was people were overheads and have to grab at something new, something they have never done before. I wonder how they reconcile the academic success of kids that have been home schooled for the first 18 years of their lives. No pre-school and now State K-12 and yet the go on to college and other post High School training and succeed. I wonder if Mr. Power and Mr.Flanagan ever asked why, ever consider there might be some lessons they could learn. Nah, this is too good and excuse for more money and why the current system is going down hill. It seems to me that is is all about 'good intentions' and there is nothing about accountablity, performance, and achieving the claims that are being made. I wonder, since the current system is so poor in accountability and performance, why Mr. Power thinks the pre-school will be any different. I notice Mr. Power never mentions this. It is too bad Mr. Power and Mr. Flanagan don't seem to understand that all theirvdreamed of gains in the few years before K-12 can be quickly be lost if the current system is left in place, and that the current system could be change to over come those pre-school years (as it did in the past). Maybe the 'gamechanger' is to get different perpsectives on how to address the system. I wonder if Mr. Power and Mr. Flanagan have a description of what success looks like, if they have ever tried to find out if others (families, commmunities) have achieved much of that success, and then tried to investigate that success. I learned a long time ago that if you only look at the problems and ignore the successes soon you have a system of problems and you hav forgotten your success. I wonder if in this case they have their 'answer' and they really don't want to know what made success in the past. I notice Mr. Power never seem to have any questions.
Tue, 09/25/2012 - 10:21am
Duane, great points. I also wonder how many people in publicly funded preschools will be able to keep their publicly funded jobs if / when it's expanded. There was an article sometime back on the front page of the Oakland Press wherein an official from the Oakland Intermediate School District stated that public schools "should own children from age zero through college" so they would be successful. No thanks.
Thu, 06/12/2014 - 10:01am
Duane, I completely agree with your comments. I have mentioned it in Bridge before regarding another article on the same subject. There is absolutely NO reason kids can't learn their abc's and learn to read in kindergarden and first grade. The schools are doing something wrong if the kids aren't learning those basic reading skills for that appropriate age level. We did not have Pre-K and learned perfectly well enough to become whatever we wanted without it. It is just a grab for taxpayer money to pay for someone else's kids to go to daycare. If a teacher cannot teach basic reading in the first couple of years of regular school, the system is broken - not the kids. They might come from poor backgrounds, but sorry, it is not the rest of the taxpayers' responsibility to pay for them. If they have a good environment in regular school, they can flourish. Let people who really believe that Pre-K is the answer to everything become volunteer tutors. Or how about this? A teacher actually stays 1/2 after school a couple of days a week to give some extra help? Now, that's a novelty.
Tue, 09/25/2012 - 10:17am
Perhaps if “free” publicly funded preschool is expanded we can drive the nasty private enterprise property tax paying private enterprise preschools out of business. Then they can stop paying property taxes so the publicly funded preschools can compete with them.
Jon Blakey
Tue, 09/25/2012 - 6:27pm
Mr. Powers, thank you for a well written, fact based presentation of the benefits of preschool education. While many middle class children already benefit from privately funded preschool education, we must do something to provide better access to quality preschool programs for our impoverished children and parents. That, combined with a quality K-12 experience will yield dividends for the next 60 years. I look forward to future advocacy pieces for this important endeavor.
Joe Maschue
Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:12am
Sir, listen to what you wrote. Pre-school education. That's an oxymoron! Pre-school should be just that- playing and running and building and splashing and drawing and crafting. No wonder parents seem to think their 7 year olds are 'bored' with teachers trying to teach them to read and do math. Their brains are already overloaded way before they are ready!
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/25/2012 - 7:45pm
Here's part of the reason 77,000 jobs go unfilled.http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120924/BIZ01/209240307/Web-hiring-s...I have experienced first-hand the employers who demand a specific and high-level skill set--one that commands a pretty good wage--and when they wrongly think they can have it for twenty bucks an hour, they complain that "people with the skills we need just aren't available." All because they're penny-wise and pound-foolish. There's plenty of research showing the gains of at least some pre-K education (read:Montessori) are completely lost by the end of 2nd grade. I wonder how many of the "9 of 10" in the higher income brackets are families where both parents work, and figure that as long as they have to pay for child care, they might as well get an educational and social component for their money. That is, they aren't sending their kids to preschool based on some "instinct."
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 9:17am
"compete in a global economy - compete in a global economy - compete in a global economy" ... STOP with the - compete in a global economy nonsense - there simply is no such thing happening. Intact, stable, and physically-mentally-emotionally and economically healthy and whole families is a far more worthy goal. Parents in such family units can provide all the necessary resources for their children and make the choice for themselves whether pre-school is or is not a viable and meaningful experience.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Sun, 09/30/2012 - 7:58am
I’m still trying to figure out who and what is REALLY behind all this Pre-K push. Is there a disparity in the quality and even existence of such programs from school district to school district …wealthy to poor, from community to community…? Yes, just as there is for any number of other academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular and even community education programming. But… There’s no evidence to show any long-term academic benefits – on the contrary, studies show the opposite. There’s no evidence to show there’s any legislative support to provide additional funds for such programs. There’s no evidence to show local parents or local or even state-wide parent groups are clamoring for such programs. There’s no evidence to show a surplus of qualified early-childhood educators available for such programs. There’s no evidence to show any experienced classroom educators or educational researchers with actual classroom experience demanding such programs. In "All The President's Men" - the author's then-anonymous news source advised, "Follow the money..." and I am thinking that may be good advice when it comes to the drumbeat clamoring for Pre-Kindergarten programming in Michigan.
Jeff Salisbury
Sun, 09/30/2012 - 9:22am
REALLY want to know what’s behind this Pre-K drumbeat? Just might reveal there's a not-so-silent point of view to Bridge magazine too. This may help. http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/5499In large urban and suburban areas, large employers are the biggest proponents of universal PreK; not for the Education, but for the child care. Productivity is lost when employees are off the job or distracted because of child care issues. Some days, ironically kids are absent because the usual child care arrangement fell through, and older sibling has to stay home to babysit. And yes actually there is a clamoring for it from (mostly) mothers who are working low wage jobs, raising children with low wage fathers or no fathers at all. Covering the cost of daycare is a major concern. If you listen you hear it every election cycle as we’re in just now. Obviously there are other issues playing into this problem, but the clamor for PreK all comes down to babysitting, not educating. The campaigns for universal PreK push the Education aspect, but this is all about daycare. The author of the above link/article has this one mostly correct.
Joe Maschue
Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:05am
Balderdash! Facts? Where are you getting these? These are all made up. Bottom lines: 1/ Legislators are trying to buy votes by providing free day care. It just sounds better if it's made to appear as if it's "for the children!" Nonsense-it's for the parents to scoot off to work guilt-free. Free day care? Got my vote! 2/ Talk to any 1st and 2nd grade teacher, who is actually in the trenches trying to teach reading and math to 6-8 year olds who already have been in formalized school environments since they were 2. The kids who have been in school the longest have the least interest in learning, because it's been jammed down their throats for so long, and well before they were the LEAST BIT INTERESTED in learning. Kids before the age of 6, and some even older than that, should be playing and running and building and learning to socialize. When they ARE ready to learn math and reading it'll be way less frustrating to the teachers, kids, and parents. 3/
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 3:04pm
Wow! So many passionate opinions - many from individuals who obviously have no connection to the realities faced by the education world. Duane, you are right - parents do have great power when it comes to preparing their children for K-12 education. And for those who accept that responsibility, children benefit. But unfortunately, schools continue to see more and more children from impoverished homes where education is simply not valued. (see Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne) These children often show up in kindergarten without the ability to follow directions, share, listen or even write their names. Public preschool provides those opportunities to the many families who are either unable to pursue private preschool or unwilling to provide appropriate experiences at home. This is an unfortunate reality. And by choosing to ignore it, we will certainly increase the numbers of future adults who are dependent upon some kind of entitlement. Think we spend too much on welfare? Then come around to understanding that investing in public preschool is a positive move for everyone!