New report shows state’s pre-K efforts failing to move the needle

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More than half of the state’s 3- or 4-year-olds were not in preschool for most of the last decade, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP).

And that’s a rate that has only increased as the decade has worn on, despite tens of millions of dollars directed toward pre-K efforts for 4-year-olds at the state level.

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According to this year’s edition of the MLPP’s annual “Kids Count in Michigan” report, almost 53 percent of the state’s 3- or 4-year-olds were not in preschool from 2013 to 2017. That’s a 2.7 percent increase over the rate from 2008 to 2012.

The annual report tracks policy outcomes for children, including the poverty rate, infant mortality and reading and math efficiency.

MLPP Kids Count Director Alicia Guevara Warren told the Advance that the organization isn’t sure yet if that increase is “statistically significant,” but that it is reflective of a stagnant status quo, even after big investments in access to pre-K for the state’s 4-year-olds.

“We [still] don’t have a state funded 3-year-old preschool program, which is why I’m not surprised [at the increase],” Warren said. “That’s including a population that doesn’t have as many opportunities to attend these schools… still there are a large number of 4-year-olds who could benefit and don’t have access to pre-K programs.”

Michigan Capitol, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

In 2013, the Michigan Legislature passed what was at the time the biggest investment in early childhood education in the country, allocating $65 million dollars to the state’s Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds.

The push was heavily promoted by the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, a coalition of business leaders around the state that was led by Traverse City businessman Doug Luciani and now-U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).

Dingell told the Advance this week that the results of the report clearly show that pre-K advocates have more work to do.

“A strong, quality preschool education sets the fundamentals for success later in school,” said Dingell in a statement. “It’s extremely concerning that more than half of preschool aged children aren’t enrolled, and worse that the rate is increasing. A family’s income or ZIP code should not determine the quality of education they receive.”

Debbie Dingell

In her fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suggested a 35 percent increase to Michigan’s state-funded preschool program. She recommended $85 million more for the Great Start Readiness Program, bringing total funding for GSRP to $328.9 million.

According to a 2017 report from the state’s 21st Century Education Commission, almost 50,000 children were enrolled that year in state-funded pre-K at a total cost of $720 million.

That report noted that Michigan was ranked 15th nationally for access to pre-K for 4-year-olds, but that still “too many children arrive at kindergarten inadequately prepared, leading to greater future expenses in areas such as special education and grade repetition.” The panel proposed the state expand to offer universal preschool access to 4-year-olds.

According to Warren, ensuring access to pre-K education for all 4-year-olds could open the door to expanding access for 3-year-olds, as well — and ultimately breaking the stagnancy at play in this year’s report.

“There’s this recognition that we still haven’t served all 4-year-olds yet,” Warren said, “But with that said, in the past the League and Kids Count have recommended that we look at how we could provide a 3-year-old state funded program as well.”

Alicia Guevara Warren

According to the nonprofit research organization Child Trends, 47 percent of the nation’s 3- to 5-year-olds, overall, were not enrolled in a pre-K program.

Warren noted that the continuing lack of widespread access to pre-K programs fed into another especially worrying indicator: 56 percent of the state’s third-graders do not meet the state’s M-STEP testing standards for reading proficiency, meaning they would be mandatorily held back under a law that will take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

“We’ve had four years’ worth of data, and every year we’ve had more students not proficient in third grade reading,” Warren said. “Have we, as a state, done everything we can to help our students succeed? Have we done enough in [the] 0-3 [age range], in pre-K, in the years leading up to that point to say we’ve supported students fully enough to put that law into place?

“… We’ve got some reflection to do as a state when it comes to that law in particular.”

In March, state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former schoolteacher, told the Advance, “If I had a magic wand, I’d remove the retention portion of that [law] immediately.”

Advocates for the law say that its retention mandate is not as harsh as its critics say it is, and that similar programs have raised literacy in other states.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Another key finding in the Kids Count report is roughly one-fifth of the state’s children live below the federal poverty line or in families that are “struggling to make ends meet.” Massive racial and ethnic disparities continue to affect health outcomes for Michigan’s women and children, the report showed. And that the rate of child abuse and neglect has risen by 30 percent from 2012 to 2017.

Whitmer weighed in on the report overall in a statement to the MLPP before its release.

“The Kids Count book shows that right now, too many Michigan kids and families aren’t getting the support they need,” Whitmer said, touting her proposed state budget’s “two-generation policies that make a meaningful difference in early childhood education, close the gap between wealthy and poor schools, and create Michigan Reconnect scholarships to provide college and career training opportunities.”

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former associate editor of the Advance and is now a freelance writer in Chicago. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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