This article, originally published on Model D Media, is part of Early Education Matters, a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement Pre-K for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“Delivering Pre-K for All will improve long-term health, education, and social outcomes for children and lower costs for families.” — Governor Gretchen Whitmer
When it comes to education, the 2023 Kids Count Data Book lists Michigan as ranking 42 among the 50 states. One of many ways that the state is working to improve quality and equity in education is by advancing free Pre-K for All, voluntary universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. In her January 2023 State of the State Address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed expanding free pre-K to all Michigan 4-year-olds. And in her June 30, 2023 e-newsletter, she announced that free pre-K would be expanded to 5,600 kids this year, saving their families approximately $10,000 in childcare costs.
“This is a critical step towards Pre-K for All, a goal we will accomplish by the end of my second term to put every kid on the path to a brighter future,” Whitmer said. “Delivering Pre-K for All will improve long-term health, education, and social outcomes for children and lower costs for families.”
Currently, Michigan families with income below 250% of the federal poverty guidelines can enroll their 4-year-olds in the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). Developed to support children at risk of educational failure, GSRP is funded by the state and administered by its intermediate school districts. GSRP has shown significant impact on increasing at-risk preschool children’s early literacy and math skills — and reduced the achievement gap in early literacy between higher- and lower-risk preschool children. The vision for Pre-K for All is to expand GSRP to a five-day program for all Michigan 4-year-olds.
“It’s going to benefit all of those different stakeholders,” says Jeffrey Capizzano, president of Policy Equity Group. “But from the child’s perspective, it’s really about supporting their school readiness. If you look at some of the evaluations of the GSRP program, it really does show positive impacts on children, particularly children who might have families with fewer resources.”
Based in Washington D.C., Policy Equity Group works to promote equity and support the well-being of children and their families by helping states, cities, and organizations design more effective systems.
Working in partnership with researchers at the University of Michigan, Capizzano and Frances Einterz, Policy Equity Group’s senior director of early childhood equity initiatives, are working on a plan for Michigan’s Pre-K for All implementation. Rolling out the program throughout Michigan involves coordinating a multitude of moving parts — and it won’t be easy. Challenges include obtaining facilities to house the programs, recruiting families to populate them, and employing staff to administer them.
In light of current educational workforce shortages, staffing could be a high hurdle, especially as preschool educators rarely are paid a competitive wage. Another concern is that childcare options for children birth through age three could be hindered as programs shift to cater to four-year-olds.
“We are currently working on an implementation plan to think about the best way to expand this program in a way that retains the quality that has yielded positive results in the lives of young children,” Capizzano says. “We want to make sure that it is a benefit to the whole early childhood system in Michigan, which means that it has to work in an integrated and supportive way with programs and providers that are serving kids birth to three.”
Power to the parents
To inform the Pre-K for All implementation plan, the Policy Equity Group is hosting listening sessions around the state to gather input not only from educators, employers, and childcare providers but also from Michigan parents. The first listening session takes place June 25 in Detroit, a second June 27 in Ypsilanti. In addition, an online feedback form on the Pre-K for All website invites all Michigan families to share their input about how universal pre-K would best serve their children and families. Input will be gathered and shared with the state. The website also provides parents with more information about Michigan’s Pre-K for All program.
“Parents are obviously a huge component to getting this right because they’ll be the ones most primarily impacted by this expansion,” Einterz says. “They’re always top of mind for us as we think about engaging them really early on in the process.”
Policy Equity Group is working with community partners across Michigan’s 10 Prosperity Regions who will conduct direct outreach to parents. Materials about Pre-K for All input sessions will be translated into languages spoken in the various Michigan communities. Because it can be difficult for parents of young children to attend meetings, virtual options will extend the conversation to those who have difficulty attending in person.
“We want to co-create the implementation plan with parents. We’re really trying to get as deep into community as possible to hear from parents that traditionally might not have a voice in this process,” Capizzano says. “We have such amazing community partners in the state — like Hope Starts Here [Detroit], First Steps Kent, Early Childhood Administrators Network, Head Start, Child Care Network, Vibrant Futures, YWCA Kalamazoo, and many others. With those partners helping us to bring parents to the table from communities all across the state, it is going to really help us get a good representation of what parents want.”
First Steps Kent works with community partners in Kent County to build a comprehensive early childhood system. The nonprofit convenes parents, service providers, funders, advocates, and other stakeholders to ensure high quality programs and services are accessible to families. In 2018, First Steps Kent led the “Ready by Five Early Childhood” ballot initiative to secure dedicated public funding for programs that serve children under age five. In November 2018, Kent County voters overwhelmingly approved this millage.
“This year alone, we’ve supported 12,000 kiddos,” says Jennifer Headley-Nordman, First Steps Kent president. “It’s about really creating a network where families can connect to quality, early-learning opportunities and experiences and also have the support that they need to create a healthy environment for themselves and their children to really thrive.”
In supporting a more effective early childhood system in Michigan, First Steps Kent is advocating for a program that will not adversely impact childcare providers caring for children ages birth through three years as well as offer parents the choices they want.
“All of us early educators have always hoped and wanted to see Pre-K for All just as we wanted to see childcare for all. This is that step in that direction,” says Kristen Sobolewski, First Steps Kent project manager. “We also have to support the other parts of the [early childhood] system and parent choice. Many of us want to see a mixed delivery system. The nonprofit organizations would be providing that universal pre-K, family childcare settings would be providing that universal pre-K as well as private preschools and public schools. That allows the parents to truly have that choice that fits their work or school schedules, cultural preference, and program type that fits their child’s unique needs.”
Working parents, no doubt, want affordable childcare options.“There’s a really compelling statistic that says 87% of survey respondents said that their child’s participation in GSRP enabled them to work,” Einterz says. “That’s such a powerful demonstration of how important affordable access to early care and education is for parents and the community at large.”
Pre-K for All’s economic benefits don’t stop with parents. An independent cost-benefit analysis of universal preschool programs showed that they can return, on average, a “profit” (economic benefits minus costs) to society of more than $15,000 for every child served.
But Pre-K for All is really about ensuring that all Michigan children can enjoy academic success in kindergarten, through high school, and beyond.
“It’s about creating a comprehensive landscape to be able to address all of those needs and types and neighborhoods,” Headley-Nordman concludes. “My background is being a school psychologist. I was always able to see the difference between those children that were afforded the opportunity of getting what it means to be a learner, who are able to take instructions and directions, to recognize a letter symbol or a number symbol. Those are the building blocks for literacy and numeracy. There’s also a social-emotional component. Whether they’re within a public school system, a quality center, or a private home, all of those give opportunities for children to have access to the type of environment that they need to learn how to be successful kindergarteners.”