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What is Michigan’s free pre-K program for 4-year-olds? Q+A with an expert

young kids in a classroom
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to expand free preschool access to all 4-year-olds by the end of her second term. Researchers have been studying Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program for several years. (Bridge file photo)
  • Students from low-income families get free pre-K under GSRP 
  • An MSU researcher who works with the state explains what makes the state’s program effective 
  • Recruiting and retaining teachers is a problem for pre-K, similar to the challenge facing K-12 schools

Will Michigan eventually have universal free preschool open to all 4-year-olds across the state?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to make that happen by the end of her second term. 


Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) allows 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend preschool for free. The program is administered by local intermediate school districts and students learn in classrooms in public schools and with community-based providers across the state.


Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu is a research assistant professor and associate director at Michigan State University who has studied the program for years. She leads a group that contracts with the state to evaluate five years of data on the Great Start Readiness Program.

While there is already data to suggest GSRP makes a positive difference in academic outcomes, Wu told Bridge Michigan she also wants to examine the academic impacts on low-income students and the “spill-over” effect on wealthier students and school districts.“

Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu studies Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program. The program provides free pre-K for 4-year-olds from low income families. (Courtesy photo)

I’m excited about the expansion of GSRP to serve more Michigan children and families.”

She spoke to Bridge by email about the state’s program.  

How do you assess if the Great Start Readiness Program is effective? Generally, what constitutes a "high-quality" preschool program?

In an ideal world, you know it’s a high-quality preschool when you see children are surrounded in a classroom with plenty of age-appropriate books and toys, they know the routine of the days, they like their teachers, they learn together with their peers not just on their ABCs but also when to listen and what to do when they feel frustrated. 

You’ll see families are greeted when they’re at the door, teachers chat with them about how their day has been or what’s the highlight of the day for their child. Teachers happily stay with their jobs and feel well supported by administrators and families. 

Michigan has a quality rating and improvement system in place that rates every GSRP site on a variety of measures of quality: teacher qualifications, quality of staff-child interactions, family engagement and many others. All GSRP sites rank at or above average on that quality ranking scale. 

In the National Institute of Early Education Research’s annual “State of Preschool” report, Michigan is one of the only five states that meets all 10 of its quality criteria. These high-quality features have led to promising outcomes we’ve seen in the past two decades. 

During the pandemic, Michigan (removed the cap on income eligibility for the program to fill empty slots.) Did that change the program offerings for students? Were teachers teaching different material and/or providing different learning supports?

The first thing we know is that, when Michigan effectively waived the income limit, 3,000 “over-income” families took advantage of that opportunity, even during the height of the pandemic. That result suggests that there is an unmet demand for affordable, high-quality preschool.

In terms of programming, GSRP sites and staff worked hard to deliver the same or equivalent curriculum in challenging circumstances. My colleagues Dr. Bethany Wilinski and Dr. Alyssa Morley interviewed 30 GSRP teachers about their adaptations during Covid. The teachers said they used new strategies and adapted to restrictions in ways that strengthened their connection to families during the pandemic. Preschool teachers are first responders and heroes in a time of crisis. 

How does GSRP develop its programs? Is there a set curriculum followed by all schools? 

According to the GSRP Manual, there are currently seven curricula that have been approved by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) for classroom use. These curricula are research-validated, play-based and aligned with the Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Prekindergarten established by the Michigan State Board of Education. All GSRP grantees are required to use an approved curriculum in their classrooms but are free to choose from these seven high-quality curricula. 


What are areas of improvement for the GSRP? 

One area we see as a challenge is recruiting and retaining qualified staff. While our data shows that many of the GSRP sites are fully staffed, some classrooms have had temporary or prolonged periods where the lead or associate teacher role is vacant. Administrators would like to see lower turnover rates for GSRP teachers, which may be a question of equitable pay. The challenge of staffing classrooms is not unique to GSRP; it is a nationwide problem that we are seeing played out here in Michigan. 

What else should the public know about the GSRP?

Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program has been making low-income children ready for kindergarten for more than 20 years. We have data to show that it has been effective. It is currently serving one third of all 4-year-old children in Michigan. If pre-K becomes universal, more children will benefit, because the cost of preschool can be out of reach for many, not just low-income families. 

I’m looking forward to working with MDE to document how the state’s investment in universal pre-K benefits children and families. Our work will also add to the research literature on the effects of quality pre-K to inform program practice and public policy.

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