STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The early education movement in Michigan isn't done yet.

Dustin Dwyer

Shortly before 10 a.m., the tall strangers in business suits arrive for their tour.

"Morning," says Denise Brown, who is not a stranger, and not in a suit. She leads this early childhood program at Campus Elementary in Grand Rapids. She's today's tour guide for the tall strangers in suits.

"Wow, I’m overwhelmed with 20 of you," Brown says. 

Two years ago, the state of Michigan made a major new investment in preschool. Since then, state funding to help four year olds attend preschool has more than doubled. About 14,000 more children now have access to preschool.

Many of the tall strangers on this tour were deeply involved in making that investment happen. But they're not done yet. And today's event is, ultimately, about keeping the movement going. 

They step into one of the site's six classrooms, with a diverse group of preschoolers gathered on a blue rug, singing a song. It goes:

“Lets sing hello, hello, hello ..."

The tall strangers watch and smile. This is for them, the best part of the day. This, they will say later, is what it’s all about.

Later, in a conference room, one shelf lined with bagels and coffee, and at the other end of the room, a podium. A podium where one of the tall strangers in a suit, Judi Brown Clarke, talks about the need to give children an early start on education. An early start on a positive self image. An early start on a path toward graduation.

"So anything we can do," she says, "we stand ready."

Brown Clarke is a member of the Lansing City Council. She’s also a former Olympian, and what one of the organizers of this event calls an “unexpected messenger” to build the case for investments in the state’s youngest children.

Another unexpected messenger: a retired general, Tom Cutler, who once led Michigan’s National Guard, and who was a wing commander at Selfridge Air National Guard base, where he says recruiting was a huge challenge.

"And guess what the barriers to recruiting often were?" he says to the group. "Education. Physical fitness. Problems with crime in their past … 71 percent of young people really can’t even qualify to entertain having a life in the military."

Decades of research into the benefits of early childhood education show how it leads to better health, less crime and higher academic achievement later in life.

That’s the message this group is working to send, to convince political leaders to invest more in programs to help the youngest children.

And they’ve been successful. Here in Michigan, funding for preschool has gone up by $140 million in the past two years. Thousands of families that couldn’t afford preschool before now, can.

"Yes we were successful in getting more funding for four-year-old pre-K," says Matt Gillard of Michigan's Children. "But the research, and everything indicates that there's a lot more to do around early childhood than just four-year-old pre-K."

I caught up with Matt Gillard, president of a group called Michigan’s Children, after the meeting

"You guys fought for extra funding for preschool," I said. "You won. So why are you still talking about it?

"Well, because there’s much more to do," Gillard said. "I mean, yes we were successful in getting more funding for four-year-old pre-K, but the research, and everything indicates that there’s a lot more to do around early childhood than just four-year-old pre-K, especially with the kids facing the most barriers, and from the most vulnerable situations. And so there’s a lot more that other states are doing. There’s a lot of success out there. There’s a lot communities are doing. And I think there’s a lot more work to be done in Lansing, and by our state legislature if we really want to make Michigan the best place to raise a child.”

Gillard, and the other adults in suits, are well-aware of the challenges they face while legislators consider other budget priorities – the push for more road funding is one example.

But preschool’s supporters heard those counter-arguments before. They won funding for four year olds. Now they want to win funding for programs that serve kids age zero to three.

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.
Related Content