STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

"Early education's time has come," say preschool advocates

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Inside a brightly lit ballroom in East Lansing last week, hundreds of early childhood educators from around the state sat at circular tables for an annual strategy meeting.

Usually, it’s a meeting to talk about how to get politicians to pay attention to preschool.

But this year, it was clear the politicians are already paying attention. 

Susan Broman, the leader of the state’s Great Start Readiness Program, stood at the podium and summed up what many people in the room were feeling.

"Early childhood’s time has come," she said.

The early childhood program Broman leads could get an extra 130 million dollars in funding over the next two years, if Governor Snyder’s budget proposals are approved.

Many preschool advocates in Michigan had been expecting some kind of increase from the governor’s office this year. What was more surprising is that the President also made a big federal preschool proposal in his State of the Union speech.

"A friend of mine said ‘Did you script him?’" Broman joked. "And I said, ‘No, I didn’t but … '"

The President’s plan would provide matching funds for state preschool programs like GSRP. The goal is to make preschool available to every four year old in the country.

"Now, come on. Let’s all clap for each other," Broman told the preschool educators in East Lansing. "I can’t believe we’re seeing this."

For many in the room, the preschool proposals of the last few weeks come after years and years of not getting any respect for preschool.

Karen Black is director of the Clinton County Great Start Program. Her whole career has been about preschool.

Black says back when she was just getting out of college, people didn’t think very highly of her new profession.

"Back then, it was babysitting," she says. "And babysitting could be looked at as sitting and watching TV or always doing crafts and things like that."

Black says what others didn’t see is how a good preschool teacher turns play into learning. How they turn fights over toys into lessons over how to get along.

Now, there’s a huge stack of research showing that these lessons can last a lifetime.

Educators like Karen Black and Susan Broman have been trying to tell politicians about this research for years. Now, the politicians are the ones making the case.

"Every dollar we invest in high quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime," President Obama said during his State of the Union speech.  

But the proposals from President Obama and Governor Snyder remain just proposals. The President’s plan has to make it through a skeptical Congress. The Governor’s plan has to make it through the state legislature.

And one complicating factor is that the federal plan could affect the state’s plan, since President Obama wants matching funds for state preschool efforts.

Snyder’s budget director John Nixon says he’s not ready to take those matching funds into account until they actually show up.

"We’ll wait and see if it passes, and if it passes, then we’ll see what our legislature does, and then we’ll marry the two up," Nixon says. "I mean, you look at the priorities, right now it’s a priority. But obviously, if that priority diminishes because it’s taken care of in another avenue or whatever else, we’ll always readjust. We always are continually looking at the budget." 

For now, Nixon says the proposal to increase funding for preschool at the state level isn’t meeting a lot of resistance. But the budget isn’t expected to get finalized until June, so it’ll be awhile before anyone can be sure.

In the meantime, the preschool advocates who’ve been working on this for years are going to keep at it for at least another few months.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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