STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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What do Michigan CEOs, a Republican senator, and $140M have in common?

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

The answer? Preschool.

What I'm about to tell you is a business story; a business story about adorable four year olds. 

We've talked a lot about the early childhood development on this blog and in our stories, with a special emphasis on the importance of preschool for kids at-risk of school failure. Michigan ranks 24th in terms of how many of its four-year olds attend preschool. We're behind states like Georgia, Louisiana and Arkanasas. But that could start to change thanks, in part, to help from an unlikely group.

Sean Welsh is president of PNC Bank's west Michigan region. While other executives at his PNC Bank branch in Grand Rapids have pictures of Sesame Street characters and giant stuffed Elmo dolls in their offices, Welsh has a picture of himself in a tuxedo, standing next to President George W. Bush. Bleeding heart liberal this guy is not, but he is a numbers guy, and he says when it comes to state funded preschool, the numbers don't lie.

Numerous studies show high quality preschool for children at risk of school failure has a 7 to 1 "return on investment"; for every $1.00 invested in preK, taxpayers save $7.00 in the long run due to lower rates of grade retention, special education and crime, among other things.

"We want our kids to come out of the educational system at whatever stage," says Welsh, "whether it’s with a quality high school degree or quality university degree or a quality community college degree, so that we have a workforce that can produce things, that can create ideas, that can be a creative to our economy."

Employers like Welsh see these little three and four year old preschoolers as adorable pint-sized kids, sure, but also as Michigan's future. That's why Welsh and other CEOs and Chambers of Commerce from across the state have slowly but steadily become some of the strongest advocates for early childhood education. Nearly 200 Michigan employers are behind a lobbying effort to get the state to pony up more money for the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state funded preK.

To get the job done, they’re pinning their hopes on the Roger Kahn, a Republican Senator from Saginaw and Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. MI. Kahn wants to increase GSRP funding by $140 million, and he's pretty confident it will happen. He says he's spoken to all kinds of movers and shakers - people in Gov Snyder's administration, other legislators, preK advocates - and he says they all believe $140 million is a fair request.

"Budgets are being constructed as we speak, and it is my hope that when the budget is delivered to the Governor, it will include this funding, if not at this level, I hope close to it."

A longitudinal study shows kids who went through Michigan’s preK  program did better in school and were more likely to graduate on time compared to the cohort of children who did attend GSRP. Yet roughly 40 percent of four year olds who qualify for GSRP don’t get in because there aren't enough slots, according to the Center for Michigan.

Will Senator Kahn’s $140 million proposal be enough to cover all eligible four year olds? No, but he’s says it’s a good start.

Susan Broman heads up Michigan’s Office of Great Start, which oversees all of the state’s early childhood programs. She thinks the push for more early education funding stands a real chance of getting through, especially with CEOs like Sean Welsh championing it. She says that's a huge deal, "especially having the Governor we have who comes out of business; having his colleagues say we've got to do this, it’s incredibly powerful."

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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