More than 10,000 additional Michigan 4-year-olds will likely be in free, high-quality pre-K classrooms this fall, after the House and Senate last night approved a $65 million expansion of the state’s Great Start Readiness Program.
Coupled with a $65 million expansion last year, Michigan has now more than doubled its investment in early childhood education, in the belief that reaching kids early is the best way to improve academic achievement.
Michigan has become a “role model for how to expand quality preschool during tight financial times,” said Margie Wallen, director of policy partnerships at the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago, a group that advocates for early childhood education. “One hundred thirty million dollars in new funding to expand and enhance Michigan’s high quality public preschool program represents the best possible investment that Governor (Rick) Snyder and state legislators can make to ensure children are well-prepared for success in school and later life.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took to Twitter to praise the move. “Great to see the MI Legislature committed to expanding PreK! We need more states to follow,” Duncan tweeted, adding a link to Bridge’s article about the investment.
The money will pay for more classrooms to open, and will provide $10 million for transportation – a roadblock keeping many children from attending pre-K.
The Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) offers free, high-quality pre-K education to four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families. The program is primarily geared for children whose families make too much money to qualify for the federally funded Head Start program, but not enough to pay for private, high quality preschool. Families can make up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level and qualify for GSRP.
In the fall of 2012, Bridge Magazine published a series of articles chronicling how 30,000 Michigan children who qualified for GSRP weren’t in classrooms because of inadequate funding poor coordination between programs, and lack of transportation.
Bridge’s coverage helped rally support for GSRP among legislative leaders such as Sen. Roger Kahn, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe. Snyder endorsed the expansion in his State of the State addresses in January 2013 and 2014 and cited the Center for Michigan’s policy research as a major impetus for the initiative.
Working behind the scenes was the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a group of more than 100 business leaders who believed early childhood education was the key to turning around Michigan’s economy.
"We are thrilled with the new expansion of GSRP,” said Doug Luciani and Paula Cunningham, co-chairs of the leadership council. “Michigan's low-income four-year-olds deserve a high-quality pre-kindergarten program and this will make it available to them. And the $10 million for transportation will make a huge difference for parents whose work schedules conflict with the pre-school schedule."
Michigan’s investment in its children has been noticed nationally. Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of Early Learning, called the additional $65 million for Michigan preschoolers “a huge coup. Michigan should be congratulated.”
Michigan’s $65 million expansion last year - which increased the number of seats for half day pre-K by almost 14,000 - was characterized as the nation’s largest pre-K expansion; This year’s similar expansion ranks Michigan second, behind only New York, Doggett said.
Wallen is similarly impressed. “Ensuring that all 4-year-olds who are most in need can benefit from effective early education programs, along with the work of building the state’s birth to five system through Race to the Top efforts, clearly positions Michigan as a national leader in early childhood education,” Wallen said.
Dan DeGrow, Superintendent of St. Clair Regional Educational Service Agency and former Senate majority leader, said he’s pleased that the governor and legislators were able to focus on the value of early childhood funding, even though the long-term benefit won’t be realized for years. “The fact that someone is thinking beyond four years is great,” DeGrow said.
The impact of the extra funding is evident in St. Clair county, DeGrow said. “I believe this year we’ll be a no-wait county,” meaning no 4-year-olds will have to sit on a waiting list for a GSRP opening.
“We are pleased with the FY 2015 funding for our Great Start Readiness Program,” said Bill DiSessa, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education. “GSRP has provided quality preschool education to hundreds of thousands of at‐risk four‐year‐olds since it began in 1985. The program continues to be vitally important because research shows students attending this successful program did better throughout their academic careers; had lower dropout rates; and had higher incomes as adults than children who didn’t attend preschool.”