Businesses endorse preschool expansion

To the 100 business leaders who signed the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan, the choice is simple: Pay a little now, or pay a lot later.

And so they gathered on the porch of the Grand Hotel Wednesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference to call for publicly funded preschool for 38,000 eligible 4-year-old children currently shut out of existing programs. It would cost, they estimated, around $130 million, which isn't a little. But if they're ignored, they could cost the public far more in coming years, they said.

Debbie Dingell, speaking on behalf of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, said every public dollar spent in the critical early years of life pays off with $7 not spent later on. She and others pointed out that studies are clear that money invested in preschool and similar programs before a child ever shows up in kindergarten pays off in school success, college and job readiness, emotional stability and more.

"Business has to be the voice for these children," she said. "I am so worried about education in this state."

And while it appears Michigan businesses are getting on board with the idea that education must begin at birth, not at kindergarten, the road to better-funded, more widely available preschool will not be an easy one. The proposal released Wednesday did not endorse a tax increase or specify a funding method to extend services to the 38,000 youngsters.

"It's an education issue," said Leslie Murphy, a CPA and another member of the Children's Leadership Council. "It's a cultural issue. It's a historical issue."

Murphy pointed out that the science on early brain development, which underlies the argument for excellent early childhood education, has only developed over the last 10-20 years, and that policymakers are only now reconciling that public education must begin earlier.

But it must be led by the business community, she said, because the issue is so closely linked to economic development and public spending in general.

"In my dark moments, I think (funding for early childhood programs) should be taken out of the Corrections budget," said Susan Broman, director of the Michigan Office of Great Start, the governor's initiative. "They'll see the savings down the road."

It's a mordant observation, but one that was underlined over and over, both at the press conference and at an earlier panel discussion hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. One-third of Michigan kindergarteners arrive at school unprepared to learn, several panelists said. Seventy percent of fourth-graders aren't proficient readers. These shortfalls set the stage for a lifetime of failure at school and in the workplace.

"The evidence is so compelling," said Paul Hillegonds, former speaker of the Michigan House and now a vice president at DTE Energy. Early-childhood spending saves, per dollar, between $2-$11 in corrections costs, and "$100,000 over a lifetime in miscellaneous costs."

But even if it didn't, it pays off in other areas, something Hillegonds said he learned while looking at private-sector programs, many of them run by corporations.

"Those people whose children were in quality care were more engaged, had less absenteeism, were better workers overall," he said, all of which helps the state stay competitive in the national economy.

So if the case is so clear, if the argument makes so much sense, why has it been so slow in coming?

"This is the choir," said Mike Flanagan, superintendent of public instruction, during the panel's Q-and-A segment. "How do we finally get people past nodding, clapping and saying, 'How do we do this?' How do we help legislators hear this voice and not the back room voice of lobbyists … and say something has to change?"

Hillegonds suggested that rising revenues from the state's improving economy be dedicated to the effort. Also, "some alliances are forming to support this. But this needs the governor's leadership."

Dingell said that if the Legislature can't hear the voices of 100 business leaders, they will hear the voices of many more soon.

"We'll double this in a month," she said of the signatories. "At least."

* The Center for Michigan, Bridge's parent organization, is a member of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Wed, 05/30/2012 - 1:47pm
I'm a skeptic regarding early childhood education. There was no attempt to teach either me nor my classmates how to read before 1st grade. We all learned and I don't think any of us had reading problems. Most of the kids in this class (we were together for 8 years and know each other well) graduated from college and had productive careers; we're all now 65 or 66. Our preschool time was spent playing (there was no TV) and doing age appropriate chores. It was mostly unstructured time where we invented our own games, had adventures in the neighborhood, learned how to get along and the consequences of not getting along with parents, siblings, relatives and neighbors. I'm thankful for these years, and looking back, I wouldn't have wanted anything different, particularly not more school. To convince me otherwise, I'd need some really good data, which isn't referenced in this article. We spend way too much on prisons, but I'm very skeptical if preschool education is the answer to that problem.
A Michigander
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 9:01am
RM is 10 years older than I, but still our pre-school years were the same scenarios. And that was correct that most of us learned just fine, graduated, and then went on the have successful careers. However does RM had grandkids? It is a different and more competitive world out there now. Kindergarten kids are expected to be able to read by the time they reach first grade now. Moreover, they are expected to know how to write letters and know their colors and simple math too. Without some sort of either preschool or parental help, kids now-a-days will not succeed without some education BEFORE they reach Kindergarten. Plus young children are like sponges in that they soak up what they learn so very easily in those early years. So the more education they can get at that age, the better. Does that mean they cannot have fun with it and make that time something they look forward to doing--most certainly not. Kids love to learn if it is taught in a fun way! My grandson and granddaughter both learned to read by age 3 without pressure or pushing them. They WANTED to read and learned. My grandson was 2- 1/2 and learned how to count to 10 in German in one evening of teaching. It was so easy for him and he loved being able to show his new skill off to anyone who asked him to recite. So I am all in favor for getting children at a young age involved with learning in a playful and fun way that will help them be successful in this competitive world!
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 11:28am
I am the same age as RM, and had experiences similar to his. I also had a full time at-home mother, parents who wanted me to succeed and provided the opportunities to do so, and an environment that was sheltered from what little global competition there was and where divorce was generally unheard of. Fast forward 60 years and a lot of kids live in single parent households where the parent has not had all the opportunities we had. As Michigander said, the kids today are expected to learn more and be smarter at an earlier age. Anything we can do to foster this is a plus.
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 11:38am
This program has been evaluated and shows no benefit toward future educational success. This is a baby sitting program sponsored by the Fed. & the State. Just one more example of removing the responsibilities of parenting. Its linked to economic development because the parents are free to go to work or play without having to pay for day care or a sitter. Raising a child is an expensive and demanding job. Unfortunately, many look at it without the responsibility or accountability that it requires.
From A Small Town
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 12:54pm
Are you referring to the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan when you say "this plan doesn't work"? I have not personally seen the research pertaining to this particular project, but I have seen research demonstrating the absolute significance of early childhood education. And, it's not just about reading, although that is a bedrock skill necessary for success in our world. It is about communication, logic, reasoning, and gaining the ABILITY to learn, not just the knowledge itself. My husband has been working and studying in the education field for several years, and he and I have come to realize that it's about study skills, ability to communicate ideas and thoughts, ability to apply knowledge and reasoning. Literacy plays a major role, but it is not the only skill needed by kindergarten. Finally, I would like to say "No man is an island...", and the success of our nation is dependent on the success of the most vulnerable of our society.
Fri, 06/01/2012 - 7:15pm
DHHS 2011 Study A 2011 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study," examined the cognitive development, social-emotional development, and physical health outcomes of Head Start students as compared to a control group that attended private preschool or stayed home with a caregiver. Head Start students were split into two distinct cohorts – 3-year-olds with two years of Head Start before kindergarten, and 4-year-olds with only one year of Head Start before kindergarten. The study found that: 1) Though the program had a “positive impact” on children’s experiences through the preschool years, “advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole. Impacts at the end of kindergarten were scattered…”; 2) After first grade, there were no significant social-emotional impacts for the cohort of 4-year-olds, and mixed results on measures of shyness, social withdrawal and problematic student-teacher interactions. The cohort of 3-year-olds with two years of Head Start attendance, however, manifested less hyperactive behaviors and more positive relationships with parents; 3) By the end of first grade, only “a single cognitive impact was found for each cohort.” Compared to students in the control group, the 4-year-old Head Start cohort did “significantly better” on vocabulary and the 3-year-old cohort tested better in oral comprehension. The study concludes, "Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade, a potentially important finding for children’s longer term development.”[11] [edit]
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 12:18pm
It is commendable that the 100 chose to step up to cover the expenses for pre-school education. But this should not take away the responsibility of the state to fund pre-school education state-wide. Many believers in small and limited government intrusion into private life cringe at the notion that tax money should be used for anything besides road construction and other very basic services that actually apply to their lives. They don't want their pockets picked to pay for someone else's responsibility. Their world is strictly "people like us", their FEDERAL taxes are too high, and they just want people with their hands out to just go away. However, those of us who live in the real world see an advantage of giving citizens a fair and fighting chance to better themselves by providing things like pre-natal care and pre-school education. If Ms. Dingell is correct, $1.00 spent saves $7.00 later, that dollar is a good investment that benefits our whole society. One estimate suggests that in Detroit up to 50% of the population is functionally illiterate, and this limits their job potential and personal opportunities to move forward. With limited prospects for success, crime and drugs are not far off. This cycle repeats itself and will continue to do so. Something has to break the cycle, and pre-school is a good beginning. Yet, the penny wise/pound foolish lawmakers would rather give tax cuts to corporations who will in all likelihood NOT CREATE ANY NEW DOMESTIC JOBS. They follow the ALEC created path of enriching the rich on the backs of the poor. And they would rather that churches and charities pick up the slack that government can't seem to underwrite. They are shameful fools who are ignoring their oath of office by selling themselves to the highest bidder with the deepest pockets. Vote them out!
Thu, 05/31/2012 - 3:30pm
"One estimate suggests that in Detroit up to 50% of the population is functionally illiterate, and this limits their job potential and personal opportunities to move forward. With limited prospects for success, crime and drugs are not far off." And how are we addressing this problem? I suggest that unless deaf or blind, these folks have the opportunity to learn to read and write if they have the desire. With enough inablers around, they can survive in their illiterate state but are the first targets of opportunity for the con-man. I fully support help for the needy, but its time we require something in return. The real tragedy is that we have been giving assistance since LBJ's administration and have not made any headway in curtailing the cycle of poverty.