Michigan has its education funding system backwards

One of the persistently enraging things about the workings of government is how often we see multiple disconnects between what we all know and what it does. Now that it’s back to school time, we can see these disconnects plainly.

Example No. 1: It is beyond dispute that children learn the quickest and best from birth to age 5. When do we start spending most public money on educating our children? At age 5, when they enter kindergarten. 

Example No. 2: In Michigan, we do spend (a very little) state money on pre-kindergarten programs. The Great Start Readiness Program, aimed at 4-year-olds from poor families, gets $109 million a year from the state. By contrast, we spend $13.4 billion on kindergarten through 12th grade in our public schools. The $109 million is little more than a rounding error. 

On the face of it, this is absurd.

We all know that pre-kindergarten programs prepare young children to succeed once they get into K-12 school. Without them, kids simply won’t make the third grade reading benchmark that predicts future success. And recent research by the High Scope Educational Research Foundation shows children who participate in GSRP are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. 

So what explains the imbalance between state funding for K-12 schools and preschool programs? Many early childhood experts sayMichiganhas its funding formulas exactly backwards.

Our state constitution guarantees free public education for every K-12 student inMichigan. For every child enrolled in school, the district gets a “foundation grant” (currently $6,966) from the state. This system incentivizes school districts to maximize enrollment -- state money is guaranteed for every student the schools attract.

But it’s just the reverse when it comes to preschool. There, the state arbitrarily declares how much money it has allocated to preschool programs (currently $109 million per year) and divvies it in slots (at $3,400 each) out to regional intermediate school districts and other GSRP providers. So many dollars allocated, so many slots available. And when the slots are full, the remaining eligible kids go on a waiting list.

And there could be thousands of such children across the state.

In other words, there’s a profound disconnect between what we know about preschool and what we do. The governor, the state school superintendent, school officials, teachers and learning experts all testify that preschool and other early childhood are fundamental keys to K-12 student success. But in practice, the state’s funding formula for preschool programs considers the GSRP program as a last priority. 

Early Childhood Investment Corporation CEO Judy Samelson concurs: “It’s about formulas, not meeting goals.”

The working of the formula for preschool practically guarantees there will be many thousands of eligible kids who never get enrolled.

How come we treat kids under age 5 so differently from those age 5 and older? I’d guess it goes back to 1979, when the School Aid Act was originally passed. At that time, most experts didn’t pay much attention to how rapidly young kids learn and how essential preschool programs are to success in school. “They’re just little kids,” I can hear policy-makers saying.

But we now know better. Fortunately, an effort is now under way to rewrite the School Aid act, led by Richard McClellan, one of Lansing’s smartest and most experienced insiders. Both Gov. Rick Snyder and Superintendent Mike Flanagan have said that it makes no sense to arbitrarily divide up money for educating all our kids, young or old, into different pots. In his special message on education earlier last year,Snyder called for a seamless P-20 (preschool through community college) system for investing in human capital. 

Early childhood programs available to all could be an absolute game-changer for Michigan children – and for Michigan employers, who are complaining loudly about not being able to find skilled employees. Putting young kids on the same funding formula basis as older ones would be a big step at eliminating this silly and unacceptable disconnect between what we all know and what Michigan government does.

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, 09/04/2012 - 9:06am
Your column is spot on. To pile on a little....early education and its importance are far from new. But you point out that educators do what they are incentivized to do. We learned that the hard way in Battle Creek regarding early childhood education in 1996-97. The CEO Forum here authorized the researching and development of an Early Childhood Education program...accurately recognizing it 15 years ago as one of the single most important elements in improving educational outcomes. It turned out to be one of the most progressive and leading edge programs in the country at the time and was presented at a Hillary Clinton White House conference on children and education by Kellogg CEO Arne Langbo in 1997. In spite of having developed such a prestigious program the local school districts failed to adopt it and the program languished. Today, only those of us who worked on the development of the program still remember it. But now educators here are trumpeting the importance of early childhood education as if only now being discovered. The moral of the story is that incentivizing schools to do the right thing is critical..but beyond that....is the need to break down the calcified boundaries K-12 schools have self-imposed that prevent them from "seeing" how students from 0-3 can fit into their system. Bill Schroer
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 9:23am
Phil Power's column is on the mark. But funding is not enough. Read the research. Only quality early childhood programs followed by quality K-3 programs will give children the solid foundation needed for long term learning success. We are squandering money and human potential on programs that are too little and too late. Only 30% of Michigan children are proficient readers at the beginning of fourth grade, the point from which we can predict on-going learning success. Our pitiful results require a carefully developed response, not another inadequate quick fix or budget shift. The early childhood years are crucial in the development of children and their potential to be successful learners for life. Lets do it right.
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:03am
Mr. Power have you ever heard the phrase 'figures never lie but liars figure'? "It is beyond dispute that children learn the quickest and best from birth to age 5" This is true because the child is starting with nothing (for we must learn everything) so learning will be its steepest when we know nothing and will slow as we laern more and more. A baby doesn't know how to feed themselves, how to walk, how to go to the bathroom, they learn those things and other very fast and those are great strides, ask any parent. Can a 6 month old learn to read, do math, your kids maybe but not mine. To say that they learn the quickest below 5 when talking about academic education is at best a subtle spin and worse sets unfair baseline for any other learning. Unless you are suggesting that the state should start taking over the education of kids from birth and teach them to walk, go to the toilet, and feed themselves earlier and measure how quickly they learn those things you are using a distorted metric, with clear purpose. I notice you exclude any consideration of the biological development of the child in you comments. Is that a rounding error? Simply saying we need to spend more money on the youngest of the children without a specified purpose, without specific impact, without a means to measure the performance of the effort, and without performance 'milestones' to be achieved to keep or end the effort you are simply offering to create another political 'good intentions' to spend an ever diminishing supply of money. "But we now know better. Fortunately, an effort is now under way to rewrite the School Aid act, led by Richard McClellan, one of Lansing’s smartest and most experienced insiders." They haven't figured out how to make our current education system work so they have given up and moved on to the kids who haven't entered it yet. How can we be so sure that these 'experts' will get it right when the curren K-12 'experts' don;t seem to have gotten right? "Early childhood programs available to all could be an absolute game-changer for Michigan children – and for Michigan employers, who are complaining loudly about not being able to find skilled employees." I wonder where Michgian employers are getting their engineers and scientists today without these programs in place, I wonder where they were getting them before there were pre-school programs. Is it soley the lack of effective per-school programs or could it be the failure of the K-12 programs that are causing the employers their problems? I wonder if all those employers had pre-school programs so they could become employers. Are these 'experts' willing to quarantee the results by giving back all the moneys they have been paid if this program doesn't change the low graduation rates, the poor learning that is currently happening? Those employers risk their incomes on the resutls of their activities. Are these 'experts' willing to risk their incomes on the results of the programs they are proposiing I wonder if Mr. Power is so sure of the results and the spending of other peoples moneys that he would be willing to create an escrow account for 20% of his income so if in 20 years that this hasn't change the discussion and we are still complaining about the poor schools he will donate all that money to the State of Michgian/
Mike R
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 12:43pm
Duane never fails to amaze me with his impenetrable ignorance. It is, indeed, "beyond dispute that children learn the quickest and best from birth to age 5", not because they are blank slates, but because every scientific, sociological, and educational study has confirmed that the human brain learns quickest and most efficiently during its early years (look it up, Duane, there's this newfangled thing called Google). An example that even Duane might understand is the way little children easily learn multiple languages while older children and adults find it difficult or impossible. Duane's argument is based only on his own contorted "reasoning" and mindless animosity toward anything that involves spending money, no matter how beneficial. But why let irrelevancies like facts get in the way of a perfectly satisfying rant?
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:03pm
Mike R. I readily acknowledge the limit of my capacities, maybe that is because I did not have the formal pre-K education. I was surprised that if Mr. Power had done the research you expect of me that he would not have include some reference to it and not have expected the readers to sift through all the edcuaiton research papers. I wonder if the only think you saw in my comments was about money or did you listen past what you expected to hear. Do you also believe that the birth through K education will succeed without a formal/documented purpose, specific impact expectations, metrics to measure the effectiveness of the program and 'milestones' that must be met or the program is ended? Do you believe that the 'good intentions' of the pre-K education all that is need to change the learning of our children? Do you believe that the only element between the success of K-12 educational system in Michigan is the the lack of pre K education. I believe strongly in the value of educartion, but I also believe simply spending money without accountablity is much more harmful than all the 'good intentions' that go into any program. The distruct of schools, the State, the education program is that they have shown no accountability for their spending. Look at the Muskegon Heights School system, with millions and millions of local, State and Federal dollars they have failed their community. They all had 'good intentions' but they never tried to determine if they were getting value. You are quick to spend money, it is disappointing you don't see the value in measuring the effectiveness of what they money is being spent on. Why is that kids that go to one school get a better education than kids that go to another school, since neither had the pre K formal education? I am glad that you an Mr. Power believe that pre K education is the panacea for our failing schools and that all we need to do is spend more on it. I do believe that kids can benefit from preschool learning, I just don;t believe it is the answer to all of our problems that you seem to suggest.
Barb Burns-Briggs
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 12:30pm
I agree with Mr. Powers. Age appropriate education, especially for low income families, should be available and accessible!
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 8:55pm
Good stuff, Phil! Could I tell you about the Connections program at Family Futures some time? It's about to blast off in a big way in Michigan and you might to be interested in covering it as the engine is igniting!
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 11:45pm
"We all know that pre-kindergarten programs prepare young children to succeed once they get into K-12 school. Without them, kids simply won’t make the third grade reading benchmark that predicts future success" I don't know it. I never went to preschool. Neither did any of my siblings. Among the eight of us, there are three Master's degrees, five Bachelor's degrees and a master craftsman's card. Seven read at the third-grade level before second grade; one sister did at age four. Neither of my non-college-educated parents ever made more than $25,000 a year in their blue-collar lives. They also said that the number of times they read a book to us after coming home exhausted from the factory floors can be counted on one hand. Clearly, something else is in play. Can you say, "DNA?" We're unwilling as a society to admit (at least out loud) that there are smarter kids who are going to achieve regardless of the disadvantages they are raised in, and dumber kids who are not going to achieve regardless of the advantages they have and the programs provided them. We commit much of our revenue trying to lift up the 10th percentile to instead of raising the 75th percentile. Raising the achievement of the bottom does little to better society; the low-hanging fruit has been picked. The fruit of knowledge yet to be picked is at the top of the tree, but we invest in three-foot ladders instead of 20-foot ones. Anyone remember how much was invested in Head Start? Anyone remember the comparison of those who attended with those who didn't when they reached third grade? If you do, you should agree that early-childhood education in an institutional setting achieves nothing three years out. This article is a testimony to the adage that it isn't what you don't know that gets you in trouble; it's what you DO know that just isn't so.
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 4:55pm
Midland High Class of '64. I remember standing in my kindergarden classroom surrounded by kids who had gone to nursery school - their families were rich, mine poor and we couldn't afford nursery school. I remember being impressed by how much more they knew than I did - made up my mind then and there that if I had children they would get to go to nursery school - and she did; and she read to her kindergarden class when the teacher was busy. However, in a couple of years the non-preschool kids had caught up with her, just as I had caught up with the nursery school kids. I also remember 40 years later in the nursing home when my kindergarden teacher shared with me that she thought our class was one of the smartest she ever had in all of her many years of teaching. We all graduated from high school. Several of us had National Merit recognition - none who had gone to nursery school; Bobby still really couldn't read when we graduated, and there was a continuum in between. MHS had advanced placement, college prep, general ed and vocational ed classes. An A in advanced chemistry didn't carry anymore weight than an A in auto shop. The answer in education is not more money or earlier 'education'. Midland spent lots of money on education and had top notch teachers. However, the key was that our administrators recognized that you teach students where they are, and don't assume that all students are capable, or even want to be, college graduates. Dumbing down our educational system so that no one 'feels dumb', is probably one of the stupidest things this country has ever done. There was no doubt in anyone's mind, including his, that Bobby was never going to go to college, he simply did not have the mental abilities. So at MHS - at least in the '60's, he was given the right to learn at his level so that he could be successful and learn how to be a productive member of society. All the money in the world or preschool from birth would not have changed that - and why should it?
Wed, 09/05/2012 - 11:58pm
Tam, I wish you would comment on Scott Baker's article. It seems you had high expectations of yourself to learn and you didn;t feel your family's financial status prevented you from succeeding. Do you recall what the other students expectations for themselves were for learning and succeeding in school, did they expect to graduate, did they expect to go on for further education?
Fri, 09/07/2012 - 10:45am
While I agree with most of what Mr. Baker says, I don't see where he defines "poor" or "poverty". What does it mean to be poor? In '64, I graduated with a young man who was the only literate person in his family and they lived in a house with a dirt floor. Today I live in a community where there are families who have 10 to 12+ kids who get free breakfasts and lunches and are on food stamps along with the other 43 million + in this country. There are the poor who are simply down on their luck and their kids are going to school hungry and without enough sleep. The whole alcohol/drug, and physical, sexual, emotional abuse hell hole is something that not many can crawl out of, but it puts a whole new spin on "poor" because it occurs at all levels of society. While I think that society has the right to expect a specific product for it's investment in education, i.e. individuals educated to fit in to corporate America. I'm not sure why the decision makers are no longer the parents, teachers and the communities in which these kids live - they are the experts. Why are kids in inner city Detroit expected to produce the same as kids in Ann Arbor, or East Lansing, or Midland or Shelby? When did we stop educating kids where they are at and start telling Teachers how to teach? While I was very much a part of the civil rights movement, I never dreamed it would result in the idea that 'equality' means that we are all the same. All poor kids are not the same; all white kids are not the same; all black, hispanic, rich, autistic, hearing impaired, etc. etc. The only thing that is the same is that in order to succeed they must be motivated to learn. A Teacher can give them a road map to reach for the stars, but if they don't have that drive, they will languish in an unhappy place. It takes a Teacher to know where the star is for each student. It helps a whole lot if they are healthy - but that is a whole story unto itself.
Fri, 09/07/2012 - 11:06pm
I think things began their change in the 60s when the concern was for the 'feelings' and not for the skills. When people began to question why students were being held back or 'failing' in their studying and started putting self image as the tool for success. That was when the education system moved away from the skills learned and moved to self-esteem being the important purpose of schools. I believe that was when the parents no longer apreciate the special knowledge and skills that teachers had. It was also the time when government programs became more about equal results rather than eqaul opportunity. I most important of all the responsibility for learning shifted from the student to the schools.
Tim V
Tue, 09/11/2012 - 4:16pm
It's a shame that the responsibility has completely shifted away from the individual student and entirely on the school. I agree that the schools could have done better in their efforts, however there are now so many laws and protections in place that "Free Appropriate Public Education" now means "guaranteed education" as opposed to the opportunity for an education. We have so many children coming to school completely unprepared for school (not just academically, but socially and emotionally) that they are incapable of learning or allowing others to learn because they are hungry, tired, afraid, you name it. We have parents that expect the world and do not offer any type of support for the teachers, and then blame the teachers when their children act like animals, and then sue the school districts. Where is the personal and familial responsibility?
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 9:55am
Three points seem relevant to this discussion: - I have read that Head Start helped kids for a period of time but that by the time they were in the 5th grade, there was no significant benefit in performance. Do we understand this? - It does seem true that when I was in school back in the 40's and 50's, there was little differentiation between income levels in terms of academic outcomes. The three top students in my class were from very modest means. - In today's K - 12, there is a rush to get all students through adv algebra and the pace of learning is expected to be the same for all. Don't students mature academically at different paces just as their physical maturations do? The current public school system seems a disservice to many of our students.
Ron lemke
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 4:04pm
After 40 years in education, at all levels I could not agree with you more. I would love and consider it a privelege to speak with you about many of these issues. I look forward to hearing from you someday. Thank You. Ron lemke
Ron Lemke
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 4:19pm
Great article Now when will we address the special education to age 26? Let me know I believe there are a number of other alternatives. Ron lemke
Mon, 09/10/2012 - 3:52pm
As an early childhood professional in Michigan for 25+ years, it is great to see such interest in this topic. The research is clear about the importance of the early years of development for academic and life success. Commenters are also correct that research shows that only "high quality" early education/intervention programs that are evidence- based and well implemented provide the impact we are seeking. However, I feel compelled to make a couple of additional points. I am over 60, and know from my own experiences that home lives of young children and the academic rigor children now face in the early grades are both vastly different than in the 1950's when I started school. I consider my job in early childhood programs and Head Start to be to "level the playing field" for high-risk children. Sadly, most of the children leaving Head Start go away many with the same challenges (poverty, incarcerated parents, homelessness, etc..) that they come in with, though we work very hard to support families to improve their circumstances while in Head Start. Our local data show that children that have exited our programs are still on par with their peers through at least upper elementary school, which is a significant boost. My bottom line is these two concerns: First, any increased state funding needs to be well coordinated with available federal (especially Head Start) and local funding or the dollars will not be best used. In addition, needs and resources are not the same in every part of the state. And second, quality programs also must focus not just on the child, but also on engagement and education for the family to support the development and school achievement of the child throughout their school career. Simply adding more dollars, even with this worthy goal, is not the answer. Careful attention must be paid to developing the systems and programs that will most effectively support all Michigan's vulnerable young children in all parts of the state.