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Gretchen Whitmer wants free preschool for all. But is Michigan ready?

young girl coloring
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants Michigan to invest millions of dollars to expand free preschool to all 4-year-olds, but experts say the plan faces numerous obstacles beyond funding. (Shutterstock)
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pitching free pre-K for 4-year-olds
  • Many school leaders are enthusiastic but say they will need more money for staffing, classrooms and transportation 
  • The state now offers free preschool to low-income families

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants Michigan to offer free preschool to all 4-year-olds by the end of her second term, an expensive and ambitious goal that will require more than just state funding. 

Educators and experts who spoke with Bridge Michigan about the governor’s proposal were generally ecstatic about the potential impact on kids but warned that the state must overcome chronic teacher shortages, transportation challenges and pay inequities to build a universal system.


Adding nearly 75,000 kids to the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program, as Whitmer is proposing, may also require expanded schedules to attract parents and reverse pandemic-era enrollment declines.


But, if the state can pull it off, there could be “enormous benefits,” Superintendent Michael Rice told Bridge.

“One year of high-quality preschool increases the likelihood that you are literate, graduate from high school and move on to college,” he said. “End to end, literally every major life outcome is affected.” 

Whitmer outlined her universal pre-K plan last week during the State of the State Address, framing it as both a benefit to children and the economy. A year of childcare now costs nearly $11,000 per year in Michigan, which experts say deters some parents from working.

The promise — and potential obstacles — of Whitmer’s universal preschool push are evident in the Kalamazoo area, where 130 low-income students are on a waiting list for the free Great Start Readiness Program. 

While that list has ballooned from 48 kids in February 2020, the number of local preschool classrooms has actually shrunk over that span because some providers closed during the pandemic and others have not been able to hire enough teachers, said Rachel Roberts, executive director for preschool programming at the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.

But the need is clearly there, said Roberts, whose agency is among more than four dozen regional consortiums and intermediate school districts across Michigan that oversee state-funded preschools.

“I have friends that have left the workforce” instead of paying for preschool or daycare, Roberts told Bridge.  "They need to stay home because they can’t afford it."

Quality ‘pays off’

Whitmer first proposed universal preschool in her 2018 campaign and has worked with the Michigan Legislature to expand access to what is now a $452 million program. Budgets she negotiated with Republicans the past two years boosted funding by $202 million to allow for an additional 24,000 kids.

Enrollment in the Great Start Readiness Program dropped early in COVID-19 and has not yet fully rebounded. Last year, about 36,000 students enrolled, down from a pre-pandemic high of 37,000. That’s far less than the roughly 60,000 who qualify. 

Under current rules, kids get first dibs if they come from lower-income households with adults who earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $66,000 for a family of four. Students from families with higher incomes can also attend the program but have to pay tuition. 

As of 2021, about 31 percent of Michigan 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool. That rate ranked 18th nationally but was far lower than some states that have already created universal programs, like Oklahoma (64 percent) and Florida (58 percent). 

Whitmer wants to make the program free for all 4-year-olds in the state — about 110,000 kids — regardless of their parents’ income.  Costs aren’t yet known, but universal preschool could eventually cost the state “hundreds of millions” of dollars each year, said Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy.

Research shows that preschool “pays off for all kids,” but many of the benefits are limited to "high-quality" programs, said Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute who has spent years studying pre-K programs.

"The key factor affecting educational effectiveness is teacher quality," Bartik said, arguing Michigan should increase per-pupil funding for preschools to ensure districts have enough resources to recruit and retain teachers, which has also been a challenge for K-12 districts across the state. 

Michigan has in recent years raised Great Start Readiness Program funding rates to match the $9,150 it pays districts for each K-12 student. But experts say preschool classrooms necessarily cost more to run because the state mandates a lower student-to-teacher ratio.

Under current rules, there must be at least one adult for every eight preschoolers, which is consistent with child care licensing ratios, and classrooms can have no more than 18 kids. That means up to three adults in a preschool classroom, including at least one "lead teacher" who has either a valid Michigan teaching certificate for preschool, or an early childhood bachelor’s degree.

Michigan preschool funding is "not sufficient to run a program that pays salaries even close to what K-12 pays," Bartik said. "With the current salaries, especially at the private schools, it's very hard to attract and retain quality teachers."

A ‘heavy investment’

Michigan's roughly 8,000 preschool teachers made an average of $35,950 in 2021, far short of the $65,760 average salary for elementary school teachers, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics. 

That pay increases turnover among preschool teachers, which means more first-year teachers in the classroom, and "significantly impedes quality," Bartik said. 

In Kalamazoo, Roberts said preschool providers are offering hiring and referral bonuses. But in order to get more highly-trained people in the field, she said the state should consider subsidizing future teachers’ education and raising teacher pay. 

She said new facilities would need to open with toys and learning materials for a good preschool experience. One solution might be for the state to provide start-up costs for the facilities. 

Like Kalamazoo, the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District has had to cut the number of preschool classrooms because of staffing shortages. Director of Early Childhood Services Stuart Jones said he estimates there would need to be an additional 30 to 35 classrooms to expand access to the whole county. 

Every childcare expert who spoke to Bridge said finding enough staff and paying them well enough to stay is a major factor in how expansion would work. 

“If we're going to have universal pre-K, we've got to stop the exodus of teachers from the teaching profession, and that's going to require heavy investment into teacher recruitment,” added Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, a former teacher and the new chair of the Senate Education policy committee. 

A high-quality program includes teachers that “happily stay with their jobs and feel well-supported by administrators and families,” said Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu, a professor of human development at Michigan State University who studies the state program. 

The Great Start Readiness Program now includes preschools run by both public and private providers. 

Among the ideas Democrats are considering is paying student teachers to make it easier for young people to join the profession, Polehanki said. 

Democrats are also considering ideas like college loan forgiveness for teachers or relaxed standardized testing rules for schools to create “a culture that is more welcoming” for teachers, said Sen. Darrin Camilleri, the new chair of the renamed “pre-K through 12” budget subcommittee.  The Trenton lawmaker is also a former teacher.

Free for all?

GOP leaders have so far been non-committal about Whitmer’s proposal. 

“Does this mean millionaires and billionaires actually get free daycare also?” Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, asked last week after the governor’s State of the State Address. 

Jones, the early childhood director in Muskegon, said he understands why some people would question if the state should be providing free preschool for higher income families. But he said high quality preschool positively affects all children. Students in GSRP tend to perform better than the county average on the third grade M-STEP for reading.

“The benefits are so proven to justify this as a sound investment if we as a society are looking for higher achievement ultimately for our kids graduating.” 

Recent research suggests universal preschool programs tend to be more cost-effective than income-targeted versions because they produce larger student test score gains in later grades.

That could be because lower-income kids benefit from exposure to middle-class peers, or it may be because wealthier families tend to hold schools more accountable for quality performance, said Bartik, the Upjohn Institute economist. 

Bottom line, "you want to have income integrated programs," he said. "I think the best way to do that is to make it free to everyone."

Making preschool free across the board also helps with getting the work out about the program, said Rice. 

"The marketing around 'school begins at 4' is unequivocal marketing,” but “the marketing of 'school begins at 4 for certain people in certain conditions' is a little bit long to fit on a bumper sticker,” Rice said. 

“I’m not being flippant. The simplicity of the marketing helps us drive up the numbers, helps us serve kids, helps get better kid outcomes. What you do developmentally upstream affects everything else developmentally downstream."

There may already be signs that families with higher income want access to the state program. During the pandemic, Michigan relaxed its rules on allowing students from higher income backgrounds to enter the state program. Wu, of MSU, said 3,000 families who would be considered “over-income” enrolled their children into the program. 

“That result suggests that there is an unmet demand for affordable, high-quality preschool,” she said. 

‘Too skinny’

Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program is one of only four in the country that meets all 10  quality standards from the National Institute of Early Education Research, which assesses things like curriculum supports, teacher credential requirements, class sizes and student-teacher ratios and child screenings.

Still, experts and educators say the state must overcome barriers including transportation, according to Rice, the state superintendent.

Of the $452 million Michigan will spend on the Great Start Readiness Program this year, $10 million is set aside for providers that choose to offer student transportation. School districts and local providers can also use their own budgets to spend on transportation as they see fit. 

“We need to figure out the transportation component across the board for education systems,” said Camilleri, the Senate budget subcommittee chair.

There is also the preschool schedule itself.


As of last year, only 57 out of more than 1,300 local providers in the Great Start Readiness Program offered five-day preschool, according to the Michigan Department of Education. The vast majority offer only four days of classroom instruction per week. 

That’s “too skinny” because parents who enroll still face the hassle — and cost — of figuring out what to do with their kids on the days or weeks when school is not in session, Rice said. 

Democrats who now control the Michigan Legislature are ready to start reviewing funding levels and possible policy changes, Camilleri said. 

“It's going to take some time to build out a universal pre-K program,” he told Bridge. “We’ve done it for a subsection of our population, but expanding it out to three times who is currently eligible is going to take some effort, not only for us as a state but for our school districts to figure out.”

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