Michigan expanded preschool funding. Reading scores show it works.

Four-year-olds who enrolled in Michigan’s free Great Start Readiness Program preschool, like these children in Kent County, score better on tests when they reach third grade than their classmates who didn’t. (Photo courtesy of Kent Intermediate School District)

In 2013, Michigan embarked on the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded preschool in the nation, with the goal of improving academic achievement among low- and moderate-income students.

We now know it’s working.  

When students from the first class of the expanded Great Start Readiness Program reached third grade in 2017-18, they scored higher on Michigan’s standardized test, the M-STEP, in both English language arts and math than their demographically-similar classmates who didn’t enroll in GSRP.

Source: Michigan Department of Education

Scores were higher for students who attended GSRP as 4-year-olds in every racial group and among students with disabilities. 

“GSRP has a disproportionate [positive] impact on minority children,” said Richard Lower, director of preschool learning at the Michigan Department of Education.

Source: Michigan Department of Education

Those scores, which MDE shared with the State Board of Education and school leaders in October, affirm the value of the almost quarter-billion-dollar program that now enrolls more than a third of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The biggest downside, for now, is that about one-third of students eligible for the program remain unenrolled in either the state-funded preschool or federally-funded Head Start. 

The impact of GSRP on learning is heightened this year, as current third-graders for the first time may be held back in grade if they are reading more than a year behind grade level.

“I was pretty confident our students would fare well,” Lower told Bridge on Wednesday. 

In 2012, Bridge wrote a series of stories on the state-funded preschool program that found 29,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who qualified for free preschool but weren’t receiving it because of underfunding by the state.

Gov. Rick Snyder more than doubled spending on the program in 2013 and 2014 to increase the number of preschool slots available for children from low- and moderate-income families. 

What was a $100 million program in 2012 has grown into $250 million in state funds annually and served 37,140 children last year. Most of those students are in a full-day preschool program, rather than the half-day sessions that existed before GSRP expansion.

That first expanded class of GSRP students, who attended preschool in 2013-14, were in third grade in 2017-18. According to an MDE analysis of that class, tracking GSRP enrollment with test scores:

  • 36 percent of third-graders who enrolled in the preschool program were proficient in English language arts on the 2017-18 M-STEP, compared to 31 percent of children who were economically eligible for the preschool program but didn’t enroll. Among all third-graders no matter their family income, 44 percent were proficient.
  • White students (44 percent compared to 38 percent), black students (19 percent compared to 16 percent) and Hispanic third-graders (30 percent compared to 28 percent) all were more likely to be proficient readers if they enrolled in GSRP than if they did not.

The scores provide the first evidence that the taxpayer-funded preschool expansion effort has improved learning for Michigan students.

“GSRP works, there’s no question about it,” said Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools.

Godfrey-Lee, a high-poverty school district near Grand Rapids, dropped GSRP for a few years because it didn’t have classroom space. The result: Kindergarten readiness, as measured on a standardized test, dropped among its students. 

Polston said kindergarten readiness increased after the district reopened four GSRP classrooms.

“Readiness is just critical,” Polston said “We can’t afford not to [have GSRP classes].”

Michigan’s preschool program now is ranked as one of the best in the nation, according to an annual report by Rutgers University.

But even with the expansion and praise for the program, about one in three 4-year-olds eligible for GSRP is not enrolled in the program, or the federal preschool program Head Start.

Some of that is because of parental choice, and some because of a shortage of teachers and space, said Lower of MDE. Enrollment rates vary wildly across Michigan, from over 90 percent in Barry, Midland and Gratiot counties, to 27 percent in the U.P.’s Dickinson and Iron counties.

Even with the large expansion, “There is still more demand than [slots for students] in some parts of the state,” Lower said. “The more rural areas are the most difficult because often school districts or Head Start are the only partner in town and they have all their spots filled.”

Lower said MDE’s best estimate is that there are about 9,000 additional 4-year-olds who would enroll in GSRP if seats were available near them. That would cost the state another $65 million per year, according to a report MDE shared with legislators.

The Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer increased GSRP funding by $5 million in the current budget.



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Thu, 11/07/2019 - 7:42pm

Actually the glass duration was lengthened. This was the root cause of the stated improvement.

Ben W. Washburn
Sun, 11/10/2019 - 9:28pm

You may be right John, or again maybe not. When I was on the Detroit School Board in the 1990s, I opposed using school funds for anything more than a half-day pre-school, because, firstly, the research then indicated that children at that age did not do much learning after the first two hours, and secondly, we could not afford to do it unless we cut back spending on K-12 needs.
The main argument for full-day pre-school is to engage more parents, because so many could not deal with the half-day program. But that could not be done within existing resources. In fact, the only way that it could be done was by cutting back more than 40% on the number of children that we could afford to enroll. And that made the argument absurd.
The first thing that the newly appointed "Reform School Board" did in 1999, after the Governor swept me and my elected Board aside, was to promote and launch a full-day pre-school. But, without any additional money to finance it, it quickly put the district into a $200 Million deficit, from which it never recovered, and sent it spiraling downhill.


Ben W. Washburn
Thu, 11/07/2019 - 10:24pm

Warning about my comments: I'm probably biased, but I also have a lot of practice with regard to this story. From 1989 until 1999, I was elected 4 times to the Detroit Board of Education. So, I have a lot of inside perspective AND insight on this story.
I really don't remember when my three children, who all attended Detroit Public Schools between 1979 and 2003, learned to read. But, I do know that my only two grandchildren were already reading at the third-grade level when they entered kindergarten. They were already beginning to learn to read when they were in their late 2's. And that's when children are really ready to learn bigtime. These days, they have both been accepted into "gifted children's" schools in the Buffalo, New York system. So, maybe, it's already too late for "society" to begin to intervene at age 4??? That may be why the expenditure of a quarter of a billion dollars a year has had such mediocre results. Yes, every little bit helps, but I was underwhelmed by this story.
Break the figures down a bit. Most of us can't comprehend State-wide budgetary terms.
So divide $250,000,000 by 37,140 students: That's $6,731 per enrollee, which is about 60% of the average cost of educating Kindergarteners through seniors.
Yes, the educational landscape has changed greatly since I was on the School Board. The parents of most school-age children now make 30% less than most parents were making back in 1990. And to just do that, many if not most couples both need to work two jobs. Small wonder than only a third of those eligible for the 4-year program are unable to make their schedules mesh.
So, no! I'm not surprised with these results. And, I'm not surprised by the favorable comments from professional educators which have been reported in this story. I'm instead disappointed that they did not take this opportunity to express their better judgments.

middle of the mit
Sun, 11/10/2019 - 11:28pm

What I am underwhelmed with is that more wealthy districts think they still need more funding for their kids education than the average of $6,731 per enrollee to educate their kids. Why can't they do as good as a job as kids in less wealthy districts that have to deal with that ACTUAL amount? They are supposed to be smarter and therefore should be able to do better with less, but yet we up here with less are told we need able to deal with less and be PROUD of it.

Care to expand upon that philosophy?

Ken Tokarz
Fri, 11/08/2019 - 9:55am

Might I suggest a story on what head start teachers are paid in comparison to K12 teachers.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 11/08/2019 - 10:29am

Correlation is not causation.

Tracy Knepple
Tue, 11/12/2019 - 7:39pm

It doesn’t work with every student and it doesn’t have them entering with a great advantage. All three of my kids have been through this program and all are struggling in reading proficiency, while classmates who did not attend are miles ahead. I just don’t think this is the best measure of success in school. I will continue to fight for my kids, but the truth is that I regret sending them to the GRSP and wish I had sent them to a traditional preschool.

Tracy Knepple
Tue, 11/12/2019 - 7:39pm

It doesn’t work with every student and it doesn’t have them entering with a great advantage. All three of my kids have been through this program and all are struggling in reading proficiency, while classmates who did not attend are miles ahead. I just don’t think this is the best measure of success in school. I will continue to fight for my kids, but the truth is that I regret sending them to the GRSP and wish I had sent them to a traditional preschool.

Jarrett Skorup
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 9:16am

Finding a tiny increase in test scores for those who went to preschool over those who didn't, without controlling for selection bias, does not "prove" that preschool funding "works."