Invest in the 4-year-olds

Bridge Magazine's parent organization, the Center for Michigan, takes quite seriously the challenge presented by the educational needs of the youngest Michiganians. It is a member of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, which just helped organize two hearings (Sept. 28 and Oct. 5) before the House Education Committee.

Tim Bartik of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo noted in his presentation that "Michigan has state pre-K for 16 percent of 4-year-olds vs. national average of 27 percent." Several states, he reported, exceed 50 percent; Oklahoma is at 71 percent.

So, Michigan has 1 in 6 kids in state pre-K programs and Oklahoma has about 3 out of 4. It's doubtful such figures will show up on any of the dashboards the Snyder administration will create.

Bartik's presentation centered on research results that show investments in early childhood learning pay for themselves several times over via higher per capita income and greater economic development. And he noted that early childhood programs don't just benefit children from disadvantaged families, but also children from families with more resources.

But who will pay? Michigan is broke, right?

Not really.

Legislators this week received reports from the House and Senate Fiscal Agencies that gushed with good news. Michigan will close its 2011 fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) with anywhere from $280 million to $430 million more in its general and School Aid funds than had been projected as recently as May.

The scramble is on already for how to make use of that money, from K-12 education to higher education to roads to ... well, you get the point.

But how about something bold and simple: Pledging the money necessary to ensure every Michigan 4-year-old has access to a pre-K program? And if the money's still there, walk it down to 3-year-olds. Invest in these young minds at the moment in their development that will yield the greatest impact.

Legislators of both parties can access the testimony arranged by the Center and its allies at the Legislature's website. They can assess the potential for gains and the investments those gains would require.

They can make a good choice. Will they?

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