“All students deserve access to high-quality teaching, resources, and educational spaces,” said Michigan Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bill 4411, the 2021-22 K-12 School Aid budget into law last year. This was an achievement for the state to reach its goal set by Proposal A of 1994 to eliminate the funding gaps between school districts. Importantly, the School Aid budget also increases access to early childhood education through the Great Start Readiness Program, which provides preschool to families at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
For many low income families, including those in Kent County, this is amazing news. It is important for more households in Michigan to have access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education for their children. According to the United States Census 2020 American Community Survey data, around 11,145 children over three years old in Kent County are enrolled in preschool. Based on the 2020 Census data, this is around 64 percent of the estimated 43,426 children under five in the county who are eligible for preschool.
The Learning Policy Institute in 2019 released a report titled “Untangling the evidence on preschool effectiveness: Insights for policymakers,” which emphasized the importance of high-quality preschool education for the development of children five and younger. The report noted that preschool left children more prepared for school, and led to improved academic performance. It also found that the benefits for students who attended a high-quality preschool program can last their entire lifetime, and helps those children gain substantial learning experiences in comparison to those who did not attend preschool. In the institute’s own words, “early childhood education programs provide one of the highest returns on investment of any educational spending”.
The reason this budget is so important is because many children still lack access to integrated, inclusive early learning experiences before kindergarten, which support socioeconomic, racial, and linguistic diversity. Public investment in quality preschools has been variable and insufficient, and educators have been underpaid while being required to acquire a wide variety of qualifications to teach. These factors, along with COVID-19, contribute to the growing gap in early education between preschoolers and non-preschoolers.
With the 2022 School Aid budget, Governor Whitmer expanded access to free preschool for an additional 22,000 four-year-olds through the Great Start Readiness Program, and proposed grants to open classrooms in more communities. Governor Whitmer stated: “This expansion will provide broad access to critical early education programs for thousands of Michigan families.”