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Michigan preschool funding has improved, but child care still unaffordable

As student performance in Michigan has plummeted, one strategy where many elected officials, educators, business leaders and state residents agree is bolstering future student success through early childhood programs.

We all have a soft spot for young children, particularly the most vulnerable among us, but decisions on how much taxpayer money to spend on preschool, quality child care and the like can be as fraught at budget time as you might imagine.   

Here are the facts on the importance of early childhood programs and the cost of expanding opportunities for Michigan’s children.

Good news for young brains   

Preschool is a proven strategy to improve school readiness. Kids receiving high-quality preschool are more likely to succeed in school, graduate from high school, earn higher incomes and commit fewer crimes. The stakes are intensified in Michigan by poor school performance. Michigan’s fourth-grade reading scores on the national assessment rank 41st in the nation. Michigan is one of only three states to suffer a decline in fourth-grade reading outcomes over the past 12 years – only West Virginia saw a larger drop.

Related education coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

Michigan dramatically increased access to state-funded preschool through the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). The move followed a 2012 Bridge Magazine investigation which found that nearly 30,000 4-year-olds who qualified for free, high-quality preschool weren’t in the program because of inadequate funding and poor coordination of services. In response, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature doubled annual GSRP funding and later added another $31 million for early literacy programs.

More Work to Do on Pre-K?  

The GSRP expansion resulted in more than doubling the total classroom slots for four year olds. The percentage of state four year olds served by the program also has doubled since 2006. Still, 14 other states still rank higher than Michigan in preschool access. And Michigan’s 21st Century Education Commission last year recommended offering universal preschool statewide. That hasn’t happened, in part, because of the additional cost: $400 million more per year.

Child Care: A Tough Puzzle for Families and the Economy

Beyond preschool, where Michigan has made progress, lies child care, where Michigan faces serious problems for both families and the state economy.

The United Ways of Michigan estimates that child care eats up about a quarter of the household budget of economically vulnerable families in Michigan.

Michigan’s child care subsidy program is legendary for problems such as lack of access, lack of quality caregivers, and low reimbursement rates compared to other states. The Michigan program serves only about one in five low-income families.

Increasingly, Michigan business leaders are framing child care access as an issue of economic growth rather than human services. Many companies have faced labor shortages in recent years – especially for low-wage positions. Without viable child care options, potential job applicants don’t enter these labor pools.  

But solutions are costly. Michigan families spend on average $824 a month for center-based infant care. At nearly $10,000 a year, this can rival the cost of housing or college tuition. Improving access and quality in Michigan’s subsidized child care program would cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

KEEP DIGGING: MORE INFORMATION ON EARLY CHILDHOOD

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