LANSING - A $130 million initiative for pre-kindergarten education is in the early stages of development, according to the Department of Education.
The initiative calls for more funding for the Great Start Readiness Program, which provides state aid to public school districts and charter schools for pre-K programs.
Through Great Start Readiness, intermediate school districts receive grants to provide preschool education for 4-year-old children from low-income families.
Mya Hemmer, then 3, pieces together a puzzle at a local preschool in November 2011. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
Making early childhood education more of a priority is absolutely crucial, according to Michael Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction.
"This is the most important thing we're working on right now, planning this budget extension for 4-year-olds," Flanagan said. "We need to get kids on the right track as early as possible. If we do that, fewer will fall behind later."
Flanagan also emphasized that being able to read at grade level is especially important, and preschool education can help.
"We have this marker at the third grade," Flanagan said. "If a child is reading at grade level in the third grade, we've found that child is much more likely to continue to stay on track. And preschool education is a big part of that."
Martin Ackley, the director of communications for the department, said that the budget proposal is an ongoing process.
According to Ackley, Michigan's Great Start Readiness Program is funded to serve 30,668 children this school year, at a cost to the state of $103,375,000. The number served is only 68 percent of the 45,000 four-year-olds in the state living in homes under 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
"There has been a lot of debate that we need the government to allocate more money to Great Start Readiness this January," Ackley said. "We need more funding to reach all kids and to provide more services.
"Whether it gets in Gov. Snyder's budget is another matter," he said. "Either way, we need to invest more in our kids up front."
The additional $130 million would pay for more open slots in the program, and children would be taken off the waiting list based on financial need, Ackley said.
"The $130 million has the potential to serve roughly an additional 30,000 children in half-day programs," said Jan Ellis, spokesperson for the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs. "It also could fund additional program supports for struggling children and allow thousands of children to attend a full-day program."
This proposal hasn't reached legislators yet, but according to Eric Dean, chief of staff for Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, there is an opening for discussion.
Walker is the chair of the K-12 School Aid and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which hasn't explored the proposal yet, Dean said.
"We haven't been approached by anyone to add aid in the pre-K school budget so far," Dean said. "But we'd be interested to hear more about it. We're very supportive of the Great Start Readiness Program, and Sen. Walker has continually suggested more funding for the program in the past."
Susan Broman, head of the department's Office of Great Start, said there is a good return on the investment in early childhood education.
"Research shows that the first 1,000 days of a child's life are the most important for development," Broman said. "We need to redesign our education system based on research."
A study by Early Childhood Investment Corp., a nonprofit advocacy organization in Lansing, found Michigan saved $1.1 billion in 2009 alone as a result of investments in school readiness programs over the previous 25 years.
Business groups are also rallying behind the cause.
More than 110 businesses have signed on to a policy platform called the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan. Developed by the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, the plan calls for preschool services for qualified but unenrolled 4-year-olds.
Supporters include representatives from Business Leaders For Michigan; the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce; Small Business Association of Michigan; and regional chambers of commerce in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Traverse City.
Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said it's the state's responsibility to offer publicly funded preschool to assure healthy educational growth.
"Our ultimate goal in this plan is to encourage the state to commit to ensuring all Michigan children arrive at school ready to succeed," Luciani said.