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Michigan’s game-changing preschool program ‘untenable’ without more funding

Michigan’s taxpayer-funded preschool program is considered a success, but it could be in trouble without additional funding, school officials say. (Shutterstock)

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds has been an academic success, but a financial loser for the state’s school districts.

State funding doesn’t cover the full costs of the Great Start Readiness Program, which offers free, high-quality preschool to children from low- and moderate-income families.

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That leaves some school districts scrambling to pay for a portion of the popular program and, in many districts, paying the certified teachers in GSRP classrooms less than educators working in K-12 classes.

“GSRP is quickly becoming untenable for our providers,” said Alan Oman, director of early childhood learning at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

Wednesday, a group of 41 school, business and community organizations sent a letter to legislators pleading for more money for a program that is likely to be needed even more during a pandemic that is suspected to have stunted learning.

The letter, signed by most state school organizations and several chambers of commerce, said that “GSRP has proven to be a game changer, and increases the likelihood that children will flourish in kindergarten and beyond,” and that “despite its documented success,” state funding has “steadily eroded.”

The state hasn’t increased the rate provided to schools and community-based providers for a full-day GSRP student since 2014, when the state began paying local school districts $7,250 for a full-day preschool seat. 

Since then, “the cost of everything else has gone up, salaries, benefits,” Oman said. “Everybody is facing increased costs while the revenue remains flat.”

When adjusted for inflation, per student GSRP funding is at the lowest rate in the history of the program, dating back to 1990, according to data from Timothy Bartik, an economist and education researcher at the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo.

Schools haven’t pulled out of the voluntary program year, but some say they are at the breaking point. This school year, Traverse City Area Public Schools threatened to drop GSRP because of a $60,000 gap between state funding and district costs. The district was able to open its doors for about 100 4-year-olds in the fall after local foundations pitched in to defray costs.

Traverse City Superintendent John VanWagoner told Bridge Michigan the district isn’t committing to continuing GSRP in the 2021-22 school year until officials have a clear picture of next year’s budget.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed 2021-22 budget includes a $32 million boost for the preschool program, which would be a 13 percent increase over the current $250 million funding.

The increase wouldn’t hike the number of slots for children – currently about 33,000 – but would instead be earmarked to increase funding per student, from the current $7,250 to $8,275.

The proposed increase isn’t a sure thing. The Republican-led House and Senate will develop their own 2021-22 budget proposals, which may be notably different from the Democratic governor’s plan.

Republican leaders in the past have supported investment in early childhood education, including Whitmer’s Republican predecessor Rick Snyder, who was responsible for one of the largest increases in state-funded preschool in the nation when he expanded GSRP in 2013.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, and Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, chair of K-12 appropriations subcommittees in the Senate and House, did not return calls for comment.

GSRP offers free preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. A family of four qualifies for the program if their household income is under $65,000, though families with lower income are prioritized for seats. The program is voluntary, so not all families who are eligible choose to participate.

Since an expansion of the program in 2013, there have been between 30,000 and 33,000 students in the taxpayer-funded preschool program annually.

A 2019 study found that students who enrolled in GSRP across Michigan scored higher four years later when they reached third grade 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.

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

A separate 2018 study in Ottawa County found that GSRP students were twice as likely to meet literacy and language growth targets between fall and spring of the school year as 4-year-olds not enrolled in the program.

“We know that preschool matters, we have data,” said Tami Mannes, director of early childhood services at Ottawa Intermediate School District. “The benefit is even greater for those kids who have risks.”

While some national studies suggest the academic benefit of preschool fades over time, the preponderance of studies, including some that followed children through adulthood, found that high-quality preschool increased high school graduation and college degree attainment rates, as well as income.

Bartik, of the Upjohn Institute, said that two years of high-quality preschool at ages 3 and 4 can increase future earnings of those children by $100,000.

That’s a benefit not only to the children, but to the state — higher earnings mean more taxes, which help fill potholes and pay teacher salaries.

And paid preschool also helps parents hold jobs, Bartik said.

“Even just two years of preschool boosts parents’ labor force participation,” Bartik said. “Washington, D.C., has moved to universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds. As a result, the labor force participation of mothers with children under age 5 has increased by 10 percentage points.”  

Despite the program’s success, GSRP runs the risk of being on the chopping block in some communities.

Gretchen Wagner, director of early childhood education at the Bay-Arenac Intermediate School District, based in Bay City, said she’s not aware of any districts that have dropped GSRP yet, but “there’s definitely a concern. If there isn’t an increase (in funding), they may have to think about” eliminating GSRP classrooms.

Many school districts also struggle to maintain preschool staff because of low pay.

GSRP teachers are certified just like teachers in K-12 classrooms, but in many districts, they are paid less because the state funds the program at a lower rate – $7,250 per student, compared to $8,111 per student for K-12 in the current school year.

The result is that GSRP teachers jump at K-12 openings when they become available to increase their salaries.

“Some make $14 an hour,” Wagner said of the preschool teachers. “Across our ISD (covering two counties in northeastern Michigan), there’s a 30 percent turnover each year, and some districts have 50-percent turnover.”

That constant churn affects the quality of education offered in the GSRP classrooms, Wagner said.

“They’re not paid the same and quite honestly they’re not respected the same,” Wagner said. “When you have staff that is (changing) throughout the year, it’s not great for kids. You’re constantly training people, which takes time away from other staff who need coaching.”

Wagner, who chairs a state association of early learning directors, said GSRP could be at an inflection point.

“Without more funding,” she said, “(school) boards are going to have to make some hard decisions.”

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