Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

Michigan is taking an exciting step forward on creating more access to preschool.  The Legislature has approved Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal for a 60 percent increase in funding that will invest an additional $65 million in early learning programs.  The funding will pay for 16,000 more at-risk four-year-olds to enroll in the Great Start Readiness Program.

The governor is expected to sign the bill into law in time for the 2013-2014 school year. And Snyder isn’t stopping there. According to an Associated Press news story, “When Snyder submits his next budget in 2014, he is expected to ask for another $65 million increase. In the span of just two years, Michigan would go from enrolling 32,000 four-year-olds in the Great Start Readiness Program to 66,000.”

Elected officials aren’t alone in their support of preschool, the article notes, pointing out that: “An influential factor behind Michigan’s move is the business community. A year ago, a coalition of 100 business leaders called for doubling the number of underprivileged four-year-olds receiving taxpayer-funded preschool.”

The need for more preschool programs has been documented here in a series of articles called “Michigan’s Forgotten Four-Year-Olds” in Bridge Magazine, which is published by the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit think tank.

A 2012 article from the series starts with this story:  “Landen Ford wants to go to preschool. The four-year-old Flushing boy with a crew cut and a toothy grin thought he’d learn the alphabet and his sounds, and maybe make some friends, just like his big brother Logan did last year. But instead of learning to write his name, Landen is learning an early lesson in budgets and bureaucracy.

“The teacher called and said: ‘I’m sorry, Landen didn’t get in,’” said Janelle Ford, mother of the two boys.”  The article adds: “Almost 30,000 Michigan four-year-olds who qualify for free preschool are not in classrooms, because of inadequate state funding, logistical hurdles and inconsistent coordination of services.”

Michigan’s good news is tempered by Upjohn Institute economist Tim Bartik, underscores the need for more growth, writing on his blog that while Michigan is expanding access and investing more per child, moving from $3,400 to $3,625, that’s “still inadequate. A high-quality half-day slot probably costs around $4,500, to allow for adequate teacher salaries to attract quality teachers, and to pay for other needed costs.”

In addition, Bartik writes, “Michigan is still well below leading states, such as Oklahoma, in the percentage of four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K. Oklahoma has 74% of all four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K, which is over triple the percentage of Michigan even after this expansion.”

Nonetheless, Michigan deserves credit for making a significant budget increase at a time when other states are holding steady or making cuts.  If Michigan leaders can keep this legislative momentum going, more children will benefit from early learning programs.