Preschool expansion popular with public

Nobody needs to convince Kelly Hart of the importance of early childhood education. The Flushing woman is the mother of five children who’ve gone through the Great Start Readiness Program, the state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.

“I’ve always loved the program,” Hart said. “We’ve been lucky to have our kids in it. But there are a lot of families who don’t get the chance because there isn’t the funding for everybody who needs it.

Michigan residents agree.

In the largest effort ever to collect and analyze public opinion on K-12 education, Michigan taxpayers overwhelmingly supported an expansion of early childhood opportunities.

More than 7,500 Michiganians voice their views in the Center for Michigan’s* report, “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education.” In more than 250 community meetings across the state and in two scientific polls, residents offered a clear message to Lansing leaders: early childhood education is a good investment.

“Expanding early education is the most important priority,” said a community conversation participant in Grand Rapids. “We could prepare them for the challenges that they are going to face later on in life. The younger you start the better off you’re going to be.”

Three-quarters strongly back more preschool

Three out of every four community conversation participants (and 68 percent in polls) said expansion of the state’s early childhood program is “crucial” or “important.” Support was strong in virtually every demographic group – low income and high income, whites and African Americans, workers and employers, educators and parents.

“I love the idea of early childhood because those kids are willing to learn, they are sponges,” said another community conversation participant in Grand Rapids. Without it, “… that child is going to fall behind.”

Several studies have found that students who enrolled in the Great Start program did better throughout their academic careers, dropped out of school at a lower rate, had higher incomes as adults and were imprisoned less frequently than children who didn’t attend preschool.

Community conversation participants offered many reasons for supporting preschool expansion, including the notions of leveling the playing field for all children and providing a solid foundation for academic success.

The Great Start Readiness Program provides free preschool to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. A family of four qualifies for the program if their income is under $69,000 a year.

But a report in Bridge Magazine in September revealed that more than 29,000 Michigan children who qualify for Great Start are not in classrooms, because of inadequate funding, logistical hurdles and inconsistent coordination of services.

It could cost about $200 million in additional state funds to fully enroll all 4-year-olds who qualify under the income guidelines.

Even after hearing the potential cost of expansion, Michigan residents supported more state-funded preschool.

“Just three weeks from the state prison budget would fund this for the kids who need it most,” said a community conversation participant. We should make that investment on the front end.”

Educators agree.

“I think a lot of people in all age categories understand the importance of early childhood education, whether they have a child, grandchild, niece or nephew,” said Beth Hackett, coordinator of the Great Start Collaborative at the Genesee County Intermediate School District.

“They understand that K-12 education has become more rigorous and to do well they need a good foundation in early childhood.”

St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency has increased spending on early childhood education to try to get more kids in preschool. “It’s very important,” said St. Clair RESA Superintendent Dan DeGrow.

But funding preschool is difficult in the state Legislature, because “you don’t see the results for 12-14 years,” said DeGrow, who previously served in the Legislature. In Lansing, “Everybody is worried about the next election.”

Voices grow for early childhood investment

Still, momentum is growing for more preschool funding. State School Superintendent Mike Flanagan called for an expansion of more than $100 million for the 2013-14 budget year.

“We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it,” Flanagan told Bridge last fall. “We can’t get to third-grade reading proficiency without it. It’s impossible.”

Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in August he would pursue a $140 million early childhood expansion.

“I believe that this study shows that people want us to provide early childhood education for more of our kids,” Kahn said. “And you need to do it now.”

Gov. Rick Snyder called for more funding for Great Start in his State of the State speech last week.

That preschool push has the backing of the Michigan business community – 80 percent of employers in community conversations (and 68 percent in polls) supported an expansion of early childhood education.

A preschool expansion is backed by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan – a group made up of business leaders – as well as Business Leaders of Michigan.

“Business leaders believe we need to spend more on the ‘bookends’ of the education system – pre-school and college,” said Doug Rothwell, president of BLM. “Kids that participate in a good preschool experience have more success in life yet we spend less than 1% of the K-12 budget on it.”

In Flushing, Hart’s five children are succeeding in school – something Hart traces back to the leg up they received in the Great Start program. “Many more people could benefit from it,” she said.

*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. 

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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Thu, 01/24/2013 - 8:18am
The National Institute of Health found that High-quality preschool program produces long-term economic payoff: An early education program for children from low-income families is estimated to generate $4 to $11 of economic benefits over a child's lifetime for every dollar spent initially on the program, according to a cost-benefit analysis funded by the National Institutes of Health. A cost-benefit analysis of CPC attendees revealed that the greatest benefits were realized among those who joined the program earliest. Children enrolled in preschool CPC received net benefits at age 26 totaling $83,708 per participant in 2007 dollars, compared with children who did not take part in the CPC program. When projected over a lifetime, economic benefits of the program, both to participants and society at large, amounted to nearly $11 for dollar spent, which corresponds to an 18 percent annual rate of return on the original investment.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 11:46am
First of all, a bunch of retired teachers having nothing better to do but attend some so called community conversation doesn't remotely cross the threshold of a scientific sample. You could have save a lot of time and just sent surveys out to the MEA membership. This 70% stat is only meaningful to idiots which judging from the attention you've gotten are plentiful! The big problem with all these studies cited whether it's early ed or breastfeeding is that you've set up a statistical filter before you even start! You are choosing helicopter moms vs. crack moms. The first rule of stats is that, correlation doesn't prove causation! None of this is that simple, unless you're one of the previously mentioned plentiful idiots.
Ron French
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 12:23pm
Thanks for your comment Matt. I think though you are jumping to some conclusions you wouldn't if you looked more closely at our data and methodology. For example, the Center for Michigan conducted two scientific polls asking the exact same questions as were asked in community conversations, so the Center could check on the validity of the community conversation results. We found the results to be remarkably similar. Second, we have demographic breakdowns of responses, so the public can see the responses of educators vs. responses from employers, workers, students, retirees, etc. In a few cases, the general public was tougher on the education system than educators; in at least one case, educators were tougher on the system than the general public. Yes, the Center realizes that people who take the time to get up form their couches and drive to a meeting to discuss public education are a self-selected group, just as those who write comments at the bottom of stories are a self-selected group. That's why we also did polls, and made our methodology as transparent as possible.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 1:10pm
Several years ago the Head Start Program results showed that the positive impact of Head Start washed out by high school. Maybe Great Start is different, I am sure it would be for a selection of students with interested parents. It seems questionable how far you can extrapolate the results without changing environmental factors. One other factor that is not mentioned, we need math, science and technical workers. Asian and even European countries are doing a much better job in turning out students for these jobs. This may be a better priority for scarce educational resources.
Dr. Richard Zeile
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:34pm
The debate over preschool education has a lot of smoke-and-mirrors. A study by the US Department of Education last year in California with about 15,000 students showed that while children from impoverished homes gained academically from preschool, 40% of children performed less well than the control group. The reason is not hard to see- adults are the best company for children, especially their parents. Neglected children get more attention in preschool, but those from traditional homes get less than they would at home. Universal preschool would help some, but also hinder some, from getting the best start in school. (I support the Michigan State Board's position which is to provide preschool education for those who need it). Another propaganda tactic is so-called "investment" in preschool education. Mothers who forego a $20,000 (or more!) income to care for their children in these vulnerable years are investing considerably more than the cost of state payment for preschool education, but the proponents of more state-funded preschool never acknowledge this. Policy that encourages parents to care for their children during the preschool years is more economical- and more effective- than the rush toward state-supported preschool.
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 1:57pm
Dr. Zeile, You seem to say that the issue maybe the whole environment that influences the child not just the few hours in the 'classroom'. It seems that is an incovenient approach to Mr. French who seems to be enamored with the government controlled solution. As I see your approach at an early age it is about the continual support of the child and not the technical expertise of who is providing that support. Correct me if I am wrong but if a parent or care provider is encouraging to a child, reading simple stories, engaing the child in learning activties such as simply reviewing the words and numbers a child may see while watching a TV show they could be at least as effective as a pre-K class. I wonder if the parents or care giver were doing that then they would also be creating habits to be supportive of the children as the continue their education K-12. It seems that there is some suggestion that the pre-K effects diminish over time if there isn't a continuing re-inforcement of the education process. I am surprised for if that is the case that the proponents such as Mr. French do see the creation of 'tools' for parents to support and encourage their child's learning be a critical peice of the actions to achieve the perported desired impact of pre-K 'classrooms'. I am one that looks at the desired impact and works back to find the best way to achieve it. This article suggest the solution (our current K-12 model)need only be extended to pre-K, and all it takes is more money for more professionals. As for your "(I support ...preschool education for those who need it" , I wonder if the need doesn't apply to all kids and if engaging the parents and care givers with a minimal knowledge of what they can do won't have a better impact and a longer lasting one than simply sending those 'those who need it' to the pre-K classes.
Sandy Ewasek
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 11:21am
A preschool's effectiveness in creating successful students depends on the school, and often the individual teacher. I am a Montessori preschool teacher with a mixed-age classroom (2 yrs 9 mo through 6 yrs) and year after year all of my students leave my room as strong readers and well exceeding the core curriculum benchmarks in science, geography and math as defined by the Michigan Department of Education Grade Level Content Expectations. This is accomplished by: 1. Having the same students for three consecutive years. I do not waste two months each year learning each student's learning style , strengths and weaknesses. 2. Individual curricula for every child. GROUP LESSONS DO NOT WORK. It a a wasted effort to ask 30 students to sit and watch a teacher explain a concept. 3. Hands-on learning. Children need to move, touch and explore. 4. Brilliant Montessori methods and materials that allow children to successfully master concepts. 5.Mixed age classrooms that allow older students to be role-models and students of all ages to move at the speed appropriate for them. We also actively teach our students how to treat each other with kindness and respect and to peacefully resolve conflicts.
Sandy Ewasek
Mon, 01/28/2013 - 9:46am
Continuing on the above comments, I have come to realize over the years that it is very easy to teach a prepared four-year-old to read, and it is much more challenging to teach a second or third grade student. to read. If a student can read their chances of becoming an accomplished student are much higher. By "prepared four-year-old" I mean a student who is able to handle themselves somewhat independently and who has been trained to interact with and observe materials. This is what we spend the first year teaching our students.How to dress yourself, the difference between large and small, hard and soft, how to carefully handle materials, respect another person's work, walk carefully through the room, and most importantly persevering through a task in order to refine skills. This can be done at home, but it is easier for me when I have a prepared environment, materials specially designed to help with these skills and 2/3 of my class are returning seasoned students who are mentors and role models to younger students. I haven't sent a child to first grade reading at less than grade level since i have been a lead teacher. Most are two grade levels above and some are well beyond that. Most importantly, if I run a reading test (such as Woodcock-Johnson) their word attack skills are usually fourth-grade level or higher. I am successful because a four-year-old's brain is geared to language. Montessori called this "sensitive periods" and if you miss this time it becomes much more difficult for the child to absorb the material.The other reason my students do so well is the materials are designed and sequenced for the student to master skills and apply them so it becomes relevant.. Oh-by the way, I have only two years of college, so the movement to make sure our teachers are better educated may actually force me out of teaching because someone with a Master's degree is more valued. I wish i could reach more children.