Budget proposal takes first step towards universal pre-K in Michigan

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Capital News Service

LANSING — The Legislature’s proposed school aid budget could signal a shift toward funding universal preschool for all 4-year-old Michigan children.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made that a campaign promise. She proposed $85 million toward expanding that program in her budget.

However, the House and Senate agreed on a proposed budget with only a $5,050,000 increase in the Great Start Readiness Program funding. 

“We support the budget proposed by the governor that would expand funding for the program as well as funding for greater access,” said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program now provides preschool education for  “at-risk” children, usually those from low-income families.

“High quality preschool is an essential basis for good education down the road,” said Richard Lower, the director of the state Office of Preschool & Out-of-School Time Learning.

The proposed funding from the governor for the Great Start Readiness Program will get Michigan 25% closer to the goal of universal pre-K in Michigan, Lower said. 

The Readiness program is offered in all 83 counties. It is typically administered through intermediate school districts, he said.

Many middle-class families cannot afford private preschool programs and they fail to meet the income cut-off to qualify for the Great Start Readiness Program, Smith said.

Low-income children with a learning disability, in foster care or homeless now have first priority for the program, Lower said. Their annual family income can be no greater than 250% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that is $62,750. 

The governor’s proposed budget raises the family income requirement to 300% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would be an annual income of $75,300. 

However the proposed budget from the House and Senate kept the family income requirement at 250% of the federal poverty level.

The program does allow 10% of its students to be from families with an annual income of 250% or above of the federal poverty line to avoid oversaturation of demographics. These families pay tuition on a sliding scale determined by local school districts.  

“The Great Start Readiness Program is based on evaluations from over 17 years,” Lower said. “We know what is working and what will produce results.

“While expanding access to all of Michigan is important, it is also important that we maintain the quality of the program as well.”

The program requires a lead and an assistant teacher in the classroom. They receive guidance from early childhood specialist coaches who have a master’s degree and at least five years of experience as a teacher. One childhood specialist coach is assigned to each classroom.

The coach works with the teaching team to establish learning plans.

Another role of the coaches is to collect data concerning learning techniques and children’s responses to them. They then work with teaching teams over the summer to provide the best service to students the following year, Lower said.

“Benefits of a universal pre-K program include more uniformity in knowledge heading into kindergarten,” Smith said. Now, he said, children’s developmental levels may vary drastically when entering kindergarten.

Children’s brains develop greatly between birth to five and having the exposure to learning at 4 years old helps them down the road in their education, Smith said.

Some educators say Michigan neglects to fund programs for children from birth to 3years old. 

“The first three years of life are the foundational years that impact every year of learning after,” Lower said. “We cannot work on only one category of learning at a time.”

The goal of universal pre-K is to have no limit on eligibility. Anyone could enroll, much like how kindergarten is set up.

“A dedication and willingness to do it,” is what is necessary to achieve universal pre-K, Smith said.

The governor and the Legislature are still at odds over the school budget.

Whitmer administration officials acknowledge that the K-12 budget proposal has increased, but “it is still nowhere near what the governor proposed in the executive budget.” 

So, it is hard to predict if the $84 million from the proposed legislative budget will be the actual amount of funding the Great Start Readiness Program receives.

All but six states have some kind of state-funded preschool education program. Only Florida, Vermont, Oklahoma and the District of Columbia have universal programs for all 4 year olds.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 25, 2019, to correct the amount of funding that the House and Senate agreed on.

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