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Michigan tried preschool for 3-year-olds, but will the idea survive?

little kids in masks
Students in a Strong Beginnings classroom sing and dance at Growing Minds Learning Center in Detroit. Strong Beginnings is a pilot preschool program for 3-year-old children from low income families. (Photo by Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat)

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

For two years, a dozen classrooms across Michigan have experimented with a new idea for the state’s early education system: Public preschool for 3-year-olds.

State officials launched the pilot program, called Strong Beginnings, with support from a federal grant, on the premise that high-quality education has profound benefits for all young learners — not just those who are a year away from kindergarten.

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But the federal funds are about to expire. And even as Michigan’s state revenues reach record highs, state officials appear poised to let the program end.

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That’s a missed opportunity to expand on the success of Michigan’s existing program for 4-year-olds, officials say. Studies show that children’s experience during the developmental window between toddler age and kindergarten, a period that begins at age 3, is critical to their success in school.

“We know that two years of quality preschool has better effects on kindergarten readiness and longer-term academic outcomes in the early elementary years and beyond,” said Richard Lower, director of the Office of Preschool and Out-of-School Time Learning at the Michigan Department of Education. 

Michigan’s state-funded preschool, the Great Start Readiness Program, is regularly ranked among the highest-quality in the country, but it only serves 4-year-olds.

“The state has done a great job with 4-year-olds, but our 3-year-olds have been missed as part of that equation,” said Yvonne Donohoe, director of early childhood services for Northwest Education Services, a county education agency formerly known as Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. Programs for 3-year-olds “are filled to the brim, and with waiting lists.”

Michigan’s program for 4-year-olds was founded in 1985 with fewer than 700 children and expanded steadily for decades. State officials see Strong Beginnings as a first step on a similar pathway to a robust statewide preschool system for 3-year-olds at risk of low educational attainment. 

But with its federal grant expiring, the program is at risk of stalling unless the state steps in with additional funds. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s education budget doesn’t include funds for the pilot. Neither does the current House budget plan.

The Senate’s budget plan includes a placeholder item indicating that some senators want to discuss keeping the 12 classrooms open.

“It is my hope that we can continue Strong Beginnings and offer this programming to more children across Michigan,” said Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, in a statement. The Strong Beginnings pilot opened classrooms in his district.

Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer, said she is “open to discussing options to expand early childhood education programs even further to younger Michiganders and continue making bold investments to support families, put children on a path to success and ultimately strengthen Michigan’s economy.”

Children are eligible for Strong Beginnings or GSRP based on their family’s income and a range of other factors including behavioral challenges.

A handful of cities and states with large public preschool programs, such as New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., offer services to 3-year-olds, but that is not the norm nationwide. As of 2019, most states offered public preschool to fewer than 5 percent of their 3-year-olds. Michigan was among the 19 states that served only 4-year-olds.

Officials in the Michigan Department of Education began developing a preschool model for 3-year-olds in 2017. The department secured enough federal grant money to open the first 10 classrooms beginning in 2020, and added two more the next year. (The grant funds were not pandemic-related.)

The program would mirror GSRP in many ways, including in its requirements for high-quality curriculum and staff credentialing, but it needed to be tweaked for younger children, who have fewer social-emotional skills and often are still learning to use a toilet.

Child care providers in Michigan often struggle to meet the demand from families with younger children, because they are more expensive to care for and there are fewer state resources to support their care.

“I get more calls for 3-year-olds than for 4-year-olds,” said Priscilla Darby, assistant director at Growing Minds Learning Center on the east side of Detroit, one of the providers selected to participate in Strong Beginnings.

On a recent Tuesday in one of the classrooms at Growing Minds, 3-year-olds wriggled on cots as the smells of Taco Tuesday lingered in the room. The classroom looked similar to those serving 4-year-olds in the same building, but with fewer — and smaller — children. They’d just come in from playing outside. Nap time would come after lunch. Some children drew on pads of paper or offered hugs to a handful of adult visitors to the classroom.

Statewide, the 12 classrooms in Strong Beginnings serve fewer than 200 students, a small fraction of GSRP, which served 28,000 students last year. And scaling it up would be expensive.

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Based on the results of the pilot, Lower said Strong Beginnings is estimated to cost $13,500 per pupil. That’s far more than the $8,700 minimum funding level for GSRP and K-12 schools, though it’s roughly in line with what such programs typically cost to run. High-quality public preschool costs around $12,700 per pupil, according to a 2021 report from the RAND Corporation.

Strong Beginnings requires more adults per child, which boosts the cost of the program. The GSRP adult-to-child ratio is 1 to 8, versus the Strong Beginnings ratio of 1 to 7.

Plus, Strong Beginnings requires programs to hire a full-time social worker to connect families with the support they need. 

For now, state officials are focused on expanding GSRP to more 4-year-olds, and recently dedicated substantial additional funds to that cause.

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