Landen Ford wants to go to preschool. The 4-year-old Flushing boy with a crew cut and a toothy grin thought he’d learn the alphabet and his sounds, and maybe make some friends, just like his big brother Logan did last year. But instead of learning to write his name, Landen is learning an early lesson in budgets and bureaucracy.
"The teacher called and said ‘I’m sorry, Landen didn’t get in,’" said Janelle Ford, mother of the two boys. "Logan learned so much – he loved it. Now there are no spots for Landen. It’s not fair."
Almost 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualify for free preschool are not in classrooms, because of inadequate state funding, logistical hurdles and inconsistent coordination of services.
On average, those children will be less prepared than their peers for kindergarten. They’ll get lower test scores throughout school, be held back a grade more often and drop out at a higher rate. Once they leave school, they’ll earn less money in their careers.
Michigan taxpayers shoulder a hefty bill for those forgotten 4-year-olds, too, starting with higher costs for special education and repeated grades, and ending with higher long-term prison and welfare costs.
Once among the leaders in state-funded preschool, Michigan is getting lapped by states that believe high-quality preschool today means an economic boom in 20 years.
"If we’re serious about becoming a business-friendly state, we need to put our funds at the front end," said Paula Cunningham, president and CEO of Capitol National Bank in Lansing and a former president of Lansing Community College. "It’s a huge investment. But research says it’s money well-spent."
State didn't know how many went unserved
Though Michigan has offered free half-day preschool for its neediest children for decades, the state had never fully calculated how many eligible children weren’t being served. An in-depth data analysis by Bridge Magazine revealed gaping holes in the taxpayer-funded system meant to provide an educational leg up for 4-year-olds in moderate- to low-income families. That analysis, plus dozens of interviews with state and national early childhood experts, economists, legislators, business and nonprofit leaders, superintendents, teachers and families uncovered sobering facts about Michigan’s preschool program:
* Two out of every five children (40 percent) who qualify for the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) are not enrolled in GSRP or any other state or federally funded preschool. In some counties, less than half are in classrooms.
* Long waiting lists for preschool exist in some school districts, while other districts don’t fully use the slots they’ve been given by the state.
* Disparities exist across the state, and sometimes within a school district, in whether the programs are full-day or half-day.
* Children who can’t attend preschool because transportation isn’t provided – even when buses carrying elementary school kids travel past their homes heading to the same school building.
* Communities where at-risk children can’t attend free preschool because their school district doesn’t offer the program.
* At-risk children are stuck on wait lists for the federally funded Head Start preschool, when they could attend similar GSRP classrooms.
"We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it," Michigan state schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan said bluntly. "We ought to blame the system first and foremost. This involves a system reform and stopping the yelling and screaming about who is stealing whose money."
Research shows big impact for pre-K classes
Route to the number
There are approximately 120,000 4-year-olds in Michigan.
An estimated 45,000 of these 4-year-olds are from middle- and upper-income families (living in households with income greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level). Most of those children are in private preschool programs paid for by parents.
That leaves 75,000 4-year-olds living in what Michigan currently considers to be "low-income" households below 300 percent of the federal poverty line. Two main public preschool programs are available for some of these 4-year-olds -- the federally funded Head Start program and the state-funded Great Start (GSRP) program.
Head Start serves those from the lowest income families. These households are below the federal poverty line ($23,050 annual income or less for a family of four people). Head Start serves an estimated 19,500 4-year-olds across the state.
Special education and other specialized programs serve an estimated 3,200 4-year-olds in households below 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
That leaves an estimated 52,300 4-year-olds in households with income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. These 4-year-olds are eligible for the state GSRP program. Just more than 23,000 were in GSRP in the 2011-12 school year. That leaves more than 29,000 who were eligible, but not enrolled.
The 23,000 Michigan children lucky enough to get seats in the state preschool program reap benefits for years. A recent study followed 500 kids from pre-K through high school and found that kids from similar economic backgrounds did better throughout their academic careers if they attended GSRP as 4-year-olds.
That study, conducted by HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti and presented to the State Board of Education in June, found that children enrolled in GSRP across the state were more prepared for kindergarten. Four years after preschool, those kids were still doing better, scoring higher on MEAP tests. Significantly fewer were held back a grade during their academic careers (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of children with the same economic background who didn’t attend preschool). More graduated from high school on time than their non-preschool peers (57 percent to 43 percent).
For minorities, the graduation gap was even wider – 59 percent for pre-K participants compared to 37 percent for families with no formal early childhood education.
Another study conducted by HighScope found that the impact of high-quality preschool was still being felt 40 years later, with participants more likely to hold jobs, make more money in those jobs, and have committed fewer crimes.
Kelly Hart doesn’t need statistics to know the impact the states’ free preschool can have on children. Her daughter Kamrynn was born prematurely. She didn’t talk until she was 2 ½ years old. "She had trouble keeping up with her milestones," Kelly recalls. "She was really far behind."
After a year in a GSRP classroom in Flushing, Kamrynn was a different girl. "She can write her name," Kelly boasted. "She knows her address and my cell phone number.
"Without the program, I would be scared about her going into kindergarten. Now I’m confident she’ll keep up."
Teachers in Bay City Public Schools tell similar stories, after the district recently reinstated its GSRP classrooms. The district dropped its state-funded preschool about five years ago because the money the state provided for the program didn’t cover costs. "The math didn’t add up," said district curriculum director Adair Aumock. "It wasn’t sustainable." The district opened a GSRP classroom again in the fall of 2010 as an experiment. When students who’d enrolled in preschool entered kindergarten classes the following September, teachers were stunned.
"Not only were students more academically prepared and school-ready, but parent involvement has gone up," Aumock said. "We’re engaging parents who may not have had a lot of success in education themselves."
Just as important to the district, "we’ve seen a larger number of our kindergarten students choosing to stay at their home schools, even in this era of school of choice," Aumock said.
Though the district is supplementing the cost of the program above the $3,400 per slot provided by the state, it’s turned out to be "good budget-wise for the district."
Now Bay City has the opposite problem – running a popular program for which there are more deserving students than seats.
"This year, we’re funded for 88 slots," Aumock said. "We had 150 qualifying applications. This is the hardest time, saying to parents ‘We’d love to help you, our heart goes out to you, but all we can do is put you on a waiting list.’"
Districts strain to deal with funding gaps
GSRP works. But it only works for those enrolled. And 40 percent of Michigan 4-year-olds deemed at-risk by current eligibility guidelines are not in classrooms of GSRP or any other state or federal program.
"Obviously, there’s unmet need," said Washtenaw County ISD Superintendent Scott Menzel. "Too many children in need don’t have access to a quality preschool experience."
But Michigan’s state-funded preschool enrollment fell considerably over the past decade. Michigan was one of only five states to record enrollment drops from 2002 to 2011, with 4,410 fewer 4-year-olds in classrooms, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).
Michigan’s enrollment dropped even though the number of families living in poverty rose (51 percent of births in Michigan last year were covered by Medicaid); more should qualify for the program.
A big part of the drop in enrollment can be traced back to state funding.
Unlike K-12 funding, which pays schools based on how many students are enrolled, under GSRP the state basically tells school districts how many preschool students they can enroll in class, with the expectation that each student in a half-day class costs $3,400.
The allotment is lower than the cost of the program for most districts, so districts that choose to have a program must take money away from other programs to pay for it.
"The amount of money we get is absolutely ludicrous," said Margie Murphy, who coordinates GSRP classes for school districts within the Van Buren County Intermediate School District in Southwest Michigan. "You have to hire a certified teacher with an extra certification in early childhood, and an assistant teacher who is supposed to have an associate’s degree. You have transportation and you have to make sure classroom supplies are adequate. It’s ridiculous. You can’t do it."
The state gave public and private providers $3,300 per student for half-day GSRP classes in 2000; 12 years later, the state pays $3,400. When inflation is taken into account, that’s the equivalent of a 23 percent cut in funding.
The actual cost of a half-day program is between $4,200 and $5,200, according to estimates from the Michigan Department of Education and NIEER.
Some districts have dropped the program altogether, such as Flint Beecher. Many have dropped transportation and shrunk the number of weeks classes are offered, such as Grand Rapids. Others have lowered preschool teacher salaries, even though the state mandates higher academic credentials than those required for grade-school teachers. "The assistant teachers have to have an associate’s degree, and those people are hard to come by at $6, $7, $8 an hour," the only salary districts can afford, says Murphy.
Because of the low state funding and caps on enrollment, school officials have little incentive to beat the bushes for more at-risk 4-year-olds.
"What do you do if you have this waiting list?" asks Joanne Elkin, at Macomb County Intermediate School District. "If you have 100 slots and you have 100 kids and 50 on a waiting list, you’re not going to go out and find the next 100."
The result is a preschool program that pays large dividends to those fortunate to hear about it and snag a spot before classes are filled, but which also leaves almost 30,000 -- the equivalent of the student body of Central Michigan University -- in an academic hole that many will never dig out of.
The state spent $109 million this year on the Great Start program, with the goal of offering early childhood education to low-income families who may not otherwise be able to afford it. But spending would have to more than double to cover the cost of educating all 4-year-olds who qualify.
Menzel said funding priorities, such as Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, has "driven investment to higher (grades)," when a higher return can be found in the years before kindergarten when a child's brain is developing rapidly.
In the meantime, Michigan spends almost $100 million per year for the 13,000-plus students who repeat kindergarten. Yet HighScope studies show that access to high-quality preschool increases kindergarten preparedness and lowers grade retention.
Though the business argument for preschool is well-established, "frankly, I don’t think we as a state have had a real commitment to it," says Judy Samelson, CEO of the Early Childhood Investment Corp. "It’s incomprehensible we haven’t solved it."
Business leaders in the state are beginning to look at early childhood education less as a social program and more as a long-term investment in the economic health of the state. Many have signed on to efforts to increase state funding for GSRP in next year’s budget, including Capitol National’s Cunningham. "We can’t get to where we want to go as a state without a greater investment in early childhood education," says Cunningham. "It’s not just a moral issue – it’s an economic issue."
Peas in a pod, but with different futures?
For now, the Ford family in Flushing is scraping together money to pay for a twice-weekly preschool program for Landen, a less-intensive and far more expensive program than was available for Logan last year.
When Logan comes home from kindergarten, he and Landen often dress up and play different characters from Batman. The brothers are best friends, with so much in common, but with one difference that could make one successful, and leave one struggling.