Every morning, a bus picked up 5-year-old kindergartners a block from the Middleton family home in Walker and took them to a Kenowa Hills school. Every morning, Kelly Middleton packed up 4-year-old Seamus and drove him to the very same school.
"I’ve seen buses go by," Middleton said. "When it’s winter and you don’t want to drag your (younger) children out, it would have been nice to have that option."
In many Michigan communities, free preschool comes with a price. Families must transport their 4-year-olds to and from school, even when buses going to the same school go through their neighborhoods.
Almost 30,000 Michigan 4-year-olds who are eligible for state-funded pre-K are not in classrooms, lowering their odds of earning a diploma and putting a drag on the state’s economy. One of the leading reasons more children aren’t in the program, say early childhood advocates, is lack of transportation.
"There were families who didn’t have cars and transportation was a huge issue," Middleton said. A lot of parents are working … and there were parents who were in school themselves and had to work out a way to get their children (to and from class)."
Some never work it out.
It's a matter of numbers
Michigan offers free, half-day preschool for 4-year-olds with household incomes under 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($69,150 for a family of four). See if you qualify . A recent study following children enrolled in the Great Start Readiness Program found they do better on standardized tests, are held back in grades less, and graduate from high school at a higher rate than similar children not exposed to quality preschool. As adults, they are more likely to hold jobs and earn more in those jobs than their non-GSRP peers.
But many lower-income families who qualify for GSRP don’t have vehicles, or the parents’ work schedules don’t allow them to transport kids to and from school. "As a (working) parent, very clearly, I’ve created a dynamic where I’m probably going to have a baby-sitter and pay them rather than going to this (free) public program," said Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.
Former GSRP teacher Natalie Merryman heard frustrations about transportation all the time from already-stressed low-income families.
"One of the parents’ preliminary questions is ‘What is the busing?’" Merryman said. "And I have to say, ‘There is no busing.’
"The whole purpose of the program is to get these little guys here and educate them," Merryman added. "To our building, we had multiple buses, but no buses for GSRP."
Transportation = money
Fewer and fewer school districts provide busing for GSRP because of the cost. State funding for the program doesn’t cover the full costs of all classroom expenses, let alone busing.
"The GSRP money only goes so far," said a frustrated Dave Campbell, superintendent of Livingston County Intermediate School District. Even paying GSRP teachers just $23,000 a year, "we just break even. The $3,400 per student GSRP allotment simply doesn’t provide enough to cover buses, too."
And separate bus routes for GSRP students, who often attend classes for just a half day, can be cost prohibitive, explained Mary Bailey, early childhood director for Calhoun County intermediate School District.
"We were spending $50,000 to $60,000 a year," Bailey said. "We were literally running across two counties, picking up 18 kids. We decided to buy more teachers and save the money we were spending on transportation."
The result of those tough budget decisions can be seen in St. Clair County, according to officials at the county’s regional educational serviced agency. Port Huron Area Schools doesn’t provide transportation and can’t fill its preschool slots; Algonac Community schools offers busing, and "they’re getting so many applications, they increased their (GSRP) slots from 36 to 48 in one year," said Dan DeGrow, superintendent of St. Clair RESA. "I offered districts $100 (per student) for transportation, but $100 a year doesn’t cover it."
Struggling to link up
Schools could allow GSRP students to ride normal K-12 buses, if the GSRP classes are held in the same building. Several districts in Calhoun County do that now, Bailey said, including a half-day child care service to fill out the day before the 4-year-olds go home on the same buses.
Schools could share transportation costs with Head Start, which provides busing for its 4-year-old preschool students (children in homes under 100 percent of the federal poverty line are usually in Head Start). Many communities around the country coordinate transportation between federal and state preschool programs, according to a national pre-K –policy expert, who seemed puzzled by Michigan’s inability to figure it out.
That sort of creative thinking could help, but when many schools are losing money with every preschooler who walks in their doors, there’s not much incentive to think creatively.
Transportation logistics and the $3,400 per student allotment for GSRP students are the reasons districts aren’t "out there beating the bushes" for more kids, said Livingston County’s Campbell.
Graduating to the bus
There is a spot on the bus this year for Seamus Middleton. The 5-year-old walks with his mother one block to the bus stop, which takes him to the same school his mother had to drive him to last year.
Mother Kelly Middleton has a 17-month-old daughter, too. "I’m hoping the program is still going on when she’s ready to attend preschool," she said.
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.