Proposal fuels debate on universal preschool education

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Capital News Service

LANSING —  Debate over the lasting success of a universal pre-K system in Michigan has been reignited with a proposed funding increase for preschool programs.

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal, the annual pre-K education budget would increase by 35% — $85 million  — and add 5,100 seats for preschool programs.

Whitmer said she wants every child to have access to preschool by the end of her four-year term and said her budget proposal is one small step towards that larger goal. 

Funding for universal pre-K may not be attainable but investment in child care is the next area of bipartisanship, according to Alex Rossman, the communication director at Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

And universal preschool may not be the solution to reaching underprivileged children, according to Ben DeGrow, the education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market conservative leaning think tank in Midland. 

He points to a similar program in Tennessee that offers free pre-K education to low-income children.

A Vanderbilt University study that looked into the long-term benefits for children in the program found that benefits declined by second grade. Tennessee responded by passing a law that places more emphasis on quality instead of the quantity of students in pre-K programs, according to DeGrow.

A study led by Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, found that the typical pre-K program in a typical public school district has no positive effects on children’s 4th grade academic performance.

Fourth-grade reading levels can be a good predictor of future educational attainment, according to a study by Robert Goerge, a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago. It said a higher proportion of students who read above grade level in the fourth grade later enroll in college than children with lower reading skills.

There’s a need to reach children in at-risk communities, said Hennie Vaandrager, a youth librarian in the Kent District Library. She said almost every library in her district offers daily programs like story times and interactive songs for children in underserved areas. 

More funding is needed for educational programs targeting children from lower income families, said Matt Gillard, president of Michigan’s Children, a public policy group that advocates for the interests of youth and families. 

Vaandrager runs programs at her library that serve underserved children.

Currently, 34% of Michigan children at the age of four are enrolled in government-funded preschool programs, putting the state 15th in the nation, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, based in New Jersey.

For a 4-year-old, the annual cost for pre-K is $6,764 in Michigan, or $564 each month,  according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. That’s over 10% of the median household income in Michigan in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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