‘Sanity caucus’ shepherds preschool reform, dollars through capital gridlock

I’ve had a few days now to mull over the goings-on at last week’s annual Mackinac Island Policy Conference.

Much of the talk on the enormous porch of the magnificent Grand Hotel was how our political system seems incapable of dealing with big subjects on which (mostly) right-wing Republican lawmakers seem unable to get behind their Republican governor, Rick Snyder:

Medicaid extension (scorned because it reeks of Obamacare); more money for roads and bridges (ducked because it entails raising taxes); and Common Core curriculum standards in education (rejected because they allegedly violate notions of state sovereignty).

Many people I talked with at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual confab voiced the opinion that our politics, both in Lansing and in Washington, are deadlocked because they are driven by extreme ideologues of both the right and the left.

“We’ve got extremist whack jobs running things,” a lawmaker told me, explaining that many GOP House members are terrified of being “primaried” by Tea Party-backed insurgents and feel the need to avoid this by proving how right-wing they are.

But there is one big exception to the policy gridlock.

The Legislature adopted and sent to the governor for signature an education budget that included a historic, nation-leading expansion of the state’s preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program. If all goes as planned, over the next two years, state support for GSRP will be more than doubled.

That means thousands of poor and vulnerable 4-year-olds now denied places will get the help they need to succeed in school. This is a heart-warming achievement, largely brought about by the coming together of what might be called a “sanity caucus” in Lansing.

First, Snyder and his education leaders recognized that early childhood programs are essentially the only way to improve school performance for poor and disadvantaged kids. As Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of education, keeps saying, “The only way for Michigan to meet universal third grade reading skills is to make preschool programs available to everybody who needs them.”

Next, legislative leaders came on board, encouraging lawmakers to do something very rare in Lansing: Adopt an investment plan with a 10-year payout. As a practical matter in this age of term limits, most lawmakers have a planning horizon of something like 18 minutes, so supporting something that will bear fruit only over the long run is very unusual and very courageous.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, called for substantial increases in state support for GSRP in his very first speech after narrowly winning re-election last fall. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called for a $140 million increase early on. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, joined in. Minority Democrats also quietly supported increased spending on GSRP, although they ended up mostly voting against the overall school budget for other political reasons.

But the politicians’ jobs were made easier by the philanthropic community, which was a staunch supporter of early childhood education from the very beginning. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ypsilanti-based High Scope Educational Research Foundation, in particular, provided important research data demonstrating that GSRP produced long-lasting results.

Supportive editorials appeared in state newspapers, ranging from the right-leaning Detroit News to the center-left Detroit Free Press. A key element was support from the business community that recognized that unless we start now to improve our schools, we simply won’t have the skilled and productive work force we need for our future prosperity.  More than 100 business leaders statewide joined the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan in urging lawmakers to take a stand for Michigan prosperity.

Business Leaders for Michigan, the powerful organization that unites Michigan’s largest and most progressive employers, added its voice. The Center for Michigan adopted early childhood as a priority that emerged from nearly 1,000 community conversations statewide. The Center, a “think and do tank, that I founded in 2006, demonstrated that it could both do and think at the same time.

Bottom line: At the end of the day, it was the emergence of this very broad-based “sanity caucus” that moved an otherwise immobile political system to adopt a very far-reaching investment program.

Today, it is common for people to wonder whether our democratic system can actually produce serious results in a timely and effective manner. But in this one case, what our Michigan political system managed to do over the year is the best possible demonstration that the system can work.

Maybe slowly, maybe hesitantly, but when it comes to early childhood education, it did indeed work.  And as a result, thousands of Michigan children will have a chance for a much better life.

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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Charles Richards
Thu, 06/06/2013 - 2:05pm
I seriously doubt that the Ypsilanti-based High Scope Educational Research Foundation provided evidence that GSRP produces long-lasting results. That study, conducted some forty years ago, did indeed produce very impressive results. But it involved far more than early education. There was massive intervention in the families of the children involved. It cost, as I recall, about $40,000 per child, multiple times what will be spent on GSRP. There is no doubt that children from low-income families would benefit from the help of a strong, competent adult, but that help involves acquiring the character traits that enable a child to not only learn how to read, but to master all the other things they need to be able to do.
Thu, 06/06/2013 - 5:23pm
Charles, You have to accept it isn't about results. it is about 'good intentions'. It matter no what the reality is, what all it takes to achieve the results they claim, it is simply to claim that it will do good so they can justify spending other people's money. Mr. Power has shown no interest in verification or accountability for these programs and the spending of the money. He has shown no interest in making what has been in place for all these years or even trying to understand why they are not achieving what is expected. He seems to have simply given up so now he has to claim there is this pre-K that will solve all the educational ills so more of other people's money can be spent. The test of this is those supporters of this new spending are giving it to the same people who are over seeing the failure of the current system.
John Q.
Thu, 06/06/2013 - 4:34pm
Doesn't Mr. Powers realize that most of the Republicans in Lansing are the far right-wing Tea Partiers? They don't have to fear the Tea Party, they are the Tea Party.
Thu, 06/06/2013 - 5:44pm
John Q., You are right, as long as the 'Democrats' are supporting/defending the governments focused efforts to slow and dissuade people involved with 'tea party' groups from have the same access to the public forums as the 'liberal' or 'progessive' organization have. You are right, no one has to fear the 'Tea Party' for they are only armed with their ideals, and the government is armed with the means to intimidate, coerce, and conficate, and even violate the law with impunity. I give more credit to those in the 'Tea Party' who have been willing to standup to public scrutiny for their ideas, then to do those who have to rely on the government to inhibit the voicing of their ideals. I believe in the value of government, I believe in the open debate of ideals, I believe in the accountability of government whether it is spending other people's money or administer the laws of this land. I am ashamed of how our government is attacking people simply because of their ideas and I am ashamed of those citizens who condone government abuses by not wanting them held accountable by the public. Demean and degrate the 'Tea Party' all you want, but I learned it was people with such a belief in their ideals that founded this country and who have sacrificed to keep it growing. Whether I agree with all the 'Tea Party' espoused or not I have much more respect for what they can accomplish (it given equal opportunity) than what you obviously do. I wonder if you would allow them equality of opportunity that Mr. Power and other supports for pre-K schooling have had.
Lois Jelneck
Sun, 06/09/2013 - 8:27pm
Phil, I've recently found your columns and I'm finding them very informative and interesting. Some I forward to Tom and Anne up in Suttons Bay. Thanks for all that you do for the State of Michigan, Lois
Bill Fullmer
Mon, 06/10/2013 - 8:05am
The legislative action is an important and good beginning. I hope at some point Gov Snyder and others talk with brain development experts to recognize that the first three years are critical, so intervening with four year olds is already trying to make up for deficits in many of the kids.