Pre-K access is a challenge across the state

In theory, children from low- and moderate-income homes have an equal opportunity for free, high-quality preschool in every corner of Michigan. But it turns out some corners are more equal than others.

In Saginaw, 91 percent of 4-year-olds eligible for Great Start Readiness Program are in that state-funded preschool or another state- or federally funded classroom. But across the state in Allegan County, only 40 percent are in preschool.

A Bridge Magazine analysis of state and federal data revealed that your child’s chances of getting high-quality, free preschool depends on where you live. Statewide, 39 percent of children who meet the current eligibility guidelines are not enrolled in the program or any other taxpayer-supported preschool. But Bridge’s analysis found a large disparity in service to at-risk youths between regions, even though the state divvies up money to give every child a roughly equal shot at free preschool.

(Bridge map: See how well your county or region is meeting preschool needs.)

More money needs to be pumped into the system to assure that more kids have access to pre-K classes that give them a jump start on academic success. "We can’t get to third-grade reading proficiency without it," state schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan said this summer. "You can’t get there. It’s impossible."

The data raises questions not only about why the disparity exists, but the impact those forgotten 4-year-olds will have on their communities.

Getting to Great Start

The Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) is intended to provide free preschool for at-risk children who may not otherwise be able to afford it. Four-year-olds in families with household incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($69,150 for a family of four) can qualify for the program.

Getting your start

Michigan children are served by two main preschool programs: federally funded Head Start for families below the federal poverty line, and state-funded Great Start, for those living under 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

A family of four, for example, qualifies for Head Start with an annual household income below $23,050; Great Start, without conditions, below $46,100; and Great Start, with at least one at-risk factor for the child, below $69,150. (As many as 25 percent of enrolled students can be above the income levels, if other risk factors are present.)

The major risk factors are:

* Living in a high-poverty or high-crime neighborhood.

* Divorced parents, or a parent in the military, in prison or dead.

* Parent whose first child was born while they were a teenager.

* Parent who did not graduate high school.

* Chronic health issues or developmental disability.

* English is the second language.

* Documented abuse or neglect.

Complete guidelines can be found by clicking here.

Children who enroll in GSRP tend to be more ready for kindergarten, and, on average, do better throughout their academic careers than kids of similar economic background who didn’t attend.

GSRP kids have lower rates of grade retention and special education needs, which saves schools money. After graduation, they are more likely to hold jobs and to make more money, which is good for the local economy and for the state (through higher personal income and income taxes).

Could the GSRP enrollment gap revealed in Bridge’s analysis foretell the economic future of Michigan communities?

Concerned that 47 percent of eligible 4-year-olds are not enrolled in GSRP or any other state or federally funded preschool, Livingston County school and business leaders are beginning to search for their own solution, if the state doesn’t step to the plate soon.

"The state should have pre-K as part of its economic development plan for the whole state," says Pat Convery, president of the Howell Chamber of Commerce. "It’s a talent issue. We need to start at the beginning with kids."

The problem with wait lists

Genesee County has "huge wait lists" for GSRP classes, says Beth Hacket, of Genesee County Intermediate School District. "We have too many eligible and too few slots. And preschool is so expensive (for families who don’t get slots), that some families will forgo it, and that further compromises the child’s education."

Macomb County has the second-lowest percentage of eligible 4-year-olds in classrooms, with only 42 percent in Great Start or another program. Robert LeFevre, director of education policy for Macomb Intermediate School District, puts the blame squarely on state funding. (The state divvies up funds and tells providers how many GSRP slots they have.)

"I don’t know how to get more (slots)," says LeFevre. "If we could get twice as many slots tomorrow, we’d fill them. If we could get triple as many slots, we’d fill them."

Just north of Macomb, St. Clair County’s GSRP classes enroll only 46 percent of eligible 4-year-olds. Dan DeGrow, superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency and a former state senator, is a proponent of early childhood education, even offering St. Clair school districts a small subsidy if they provided transportation for GSRP students. But it’s difficult for cash-strapped schools to invest in a program that will only show tangible benefits years later.

"We’re like the Legislature – we can’t think more than two years ahead," said DeGrow. "I get evaluated on our test scores on the front page every year. You say (pre-K) will show results in 10 years? That’s great. But I won’t be here."

Children on waiting lists for GSRP account for only a fraction of Michigan’s forgotten 4-year-olds. Districts often struggle to find effective ways to inform low-income families of the program. Because the $3,400 schools get from the state for each GSRP student doesn’t cover the full costs of staffing and supplying the classrooms, schools don’t have any money to market the program.

And even if they did more to promote the preschool, there aren’t slots for additional kids.

Tracking down at-risk families, who tend to be move often, isn’t easy, says Larry Schweinhart, president of HighScope Educational Research Foundation. "It’s not exactly like looking for a needle in a haystack," he says, "but it is like looking for 100 needles in a haystack."

But providers could do more – and probably would if there was adequate funding, explains Schweinhart.

"Providers will talk about serving the entire eligible population but they don’t mean it," Schweinhart says. "What they want to do is please the people who show up at their door."

Allegan County struggles to find kids

To understand some of the frustrations faced by schools, look to Allegan County, along the shores of Lake Michigan. Already saddled with the lowest percentage of eligible 4-year-olds in classrooms, Allegan County has seen its GSRP enrollment drop again this fall. "That is kind of unheard of and we’re struggling with the why," says Erika Burkhardt, early childhood specialist for Allegan Educational Service Agency.

The half-day classes are a barrier to some working families, Burkhardt says. Transportation is less of an issue than it is in many counties, because most of the districts offer GSRP buses.

"We’ve filled our slots, it was harder this year," says Burkhardt. "For us, even getting the word out, the marketing is difficult. We have a high poverty rate, and very rural. To try to flush out those families is difficult, they’re out in the middle of nowhere."

Allegan ESA has tried a little bit of everything to find at-risk 4-year-olds, from advertising at the start of children’s movies in theaters to yard signs advertising "Free Preschool."

"Our county’s not alone," Burkhardt says. "It’s difficult to reach families."

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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Tue, 09/25/2012 - 10:14am
Perhaps if "free" publicly funded preschool is expanded we can drive the nasty private enterprise property tax paying private enterprise preschools out of business. Then they can stop paying property taxes so the publicly funded preschools can compete with them.
Jon Blakey
Tue, 09/25/2012 - 5:47pm
Very cynical and ill informed view point, Jerry. This is about expanding preschool opportunities to people who cannot afford private preschool programs. And Mr. DeGrow, unless you die prematurely, you will be around to see the benefits of the preschool program offered today. It will come in the form of higher graduation rates, lower incarceration rates, more employed, tax paying citizens to help support Social Security and Medicare programs, and more engaged citizens in your community. Your shortsightedness is understandable given the pressures educators face to improve test scores immediately, but I urge you to become better informed and more skilled at explaining the research proven benefits of quality preschool programming to your boards and county superintendents. Our failure to reach the thousands of children needing the GSRP programs will haunt us to our graves.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Sun, 09/30/2012 - 7:55am
I’m still trying to figure out who and what is REALLY behind all this Pre-K push. Is there a disparity in the quality and even existence of such programs from school district to school district …wealthy to poor, from community to community…? Yes, just as there is for any number of other academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular and even community education programming. But… There’s no evidence to show any long-term academic benefits – on the contrary, studies show the opposite. There’s no evidence to show there’s any legislative support to provide additional funds for such programs. There’s no evidence to show local parents or local or even state-wide parent groups are clamoring for such programs. There’s no evidence to show a surplus of qualified early-childhood educators available for such programs. There’s no evidence to show any experienced classroom educators or educational researchers with actual classroom experience demanding such programs. In "All The President's Men" - the author's then-anonymous news source advised, "Follow the money..." and I am thinking that may be good advice when it comes to the drumbeat clamoring for Pre-Kindergarten programming in Michigan.
Ron French
Sun, 09/30/2012 - 9:35am
Hi Jeffrey, thanks for this comment, which you’ve posted on six stories. Let me try to answer your concerns. - there’s no evidence of long-term benefits. Actually, if you read this story and numerous other stories in this package, you’ll see links to two studies that indicate academic benefits that last throughout K-12 and in to careers. I recommend anyone wondering about the impact of state dollars on preschool read those studies, and then make their own decision. - there’s no evidence of legislative support. Actually, Sen. Roger Kahn has proposed adding $140 million to next year’s budget for more preschool, and the governor is a big proponent. While it’s anyone’s guess whether this money will survive the budget process, it would be inaccurate to say there isn’t momentum gathering for preschool. - there’s no evidence that local parents or statewide parent groups are clamoring for such programs. The Center for Michigan has been holding community conversations across the state this year to engage the public in education, and preschool is one of the top efforts supported by those in attendance. have I seen statewide polls? No, that would be a good idea. - there’s no evidence to show a surplus of qualified early childhood educators available for such programs. I don’t have figures for what you refer to as early childhood educators, but I do know Michigan produces a surplus of teachers, many of whom now leave the state for jobs or are forced to take positions not in their field of study. Great Start teachers must have a teaching certification and an additional early childhood endorsement. I’d suggest a shortage of teachers would not be a problem, nor should that be the point: i’m not sure i see the downside of more college-degree, middle-class jobs. - no evidence of experienced classroom educators or eductational researchers with actual classroom experience demanding such a program. Now here Jeffrey I am confused. People of the kind you reference are quoted in almost all of the stories in this package, from teachers to principals to school administrators. And finally, you suggest that there’s some nefarious reason behind Bridge writing stories about early childhood. Michigan invests less than a number of other states in preschool; Michigan has a lower percentage of its low and moderate-income kids in preschool; Studies show kids in preschool do better throughout their academic careers. We think that means pretty clearly that Michigan is likely to pay a price for its disinvestment in preschool. The argument to be made is that Michigan is choosing to invest its money in other ways that some will argue will pay off more in the end. You can make a pitch that the return on investment isn’t worth it. You can argue that paying for preschool for at-risk children is a step too far (even though we already pay for preschool for more than 23,000). That’s a debate worth having. But it doesn’t serve a worthwhile conversation on how best to move our state forward to label ideas we disagree with as somehow tainted by some unknown source of money.
Jeff Salisbury
Sun, 09/30/2012 - 9:20am
REALLY want to know what’s behind this Pre-K drumbeat? Just might reveal there's a not-so-silent point of view to Bridge magazine too. This may help. large urban and suburban areas, large employers are the biggest proponents of universal PreK; not for the Education, but for the child care. Productivity is lost when employees are off the job or distracted because of child care issues. Some days, ironically kids are absent because the usual child care arrangement fell through, and older sibling has to stay home to babysit. And yes actually there is a clamoring for it from (mostly) mothers who are working low wage jobs, raising children with low wage fathers or no fathers at all. Covering the cost of daycare is a major concern. If you listen you hear it every election cycle as we’re in just now. Obviously there are other issues playing into this problem, but the clamor for PreK all comes down to babysitting, not educating. The campaigns for universal PreK push the Education aspect, but this is all about daycare. The author of the above link/article has this one mostly correct.
Thu, 06/12/2014 - 10:11am
It is not FREE!! Except to the parents who enroll. It costs all of the rest of us money. Money that could be well spent elsewhere.