Coordinating early care and learning

I received a request for my comment on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s recent proposal to consolidate early childhood programs in one office. (This request came in response to a recent post of mine, in which I asked readers to suggest topics for this blog. Please feel free to send in additional suggestions!)

The Governor’s proposal  is to coordinate all 84 funding streams for early childhood programs under one office, the “Michigan Office of Great Start – Early Childhood”, within the Michigan Department of Education. This coordination includes not only the state preschool programs of the Michigan Department of Education, but also the child care programs and Head Start programs now overseen by the Michigan Department of Human Services.

This consolidation and coordination follows the precedent set by some other states. For example, Pennsylvania has since 2007 had a state Office of Child Development and Early Learning. OCDEL provides similar coordinated oversight and administration of Pennsylvania’s early childhood programs.

This coordination is welcome for two reasons. First, coordination in and of itself makes sense. The standards for child development and early learning should be similar across various early childhood programs, regardless of whether the program is labeled “child care” or “preschool”, and regardless of whether the funding comes from one source or another.

Second, coordinating early childhood programs with an explicit child development and education focus is welcome. I would not be so enthused by a coordination that de-emphasized child development goals, and focused on early childhood programs simply as freeing up parent work time. However, in both Michigan’s case and Pennsylvania’s case, the consolidation appears to be focused on child development.

However, consolidation and coordination only goes so far in what it can achieve. In Michigan’s case, the reality is that just 16% of four-year-olds are currently enrolled in state-funded preschool. This compares with a national average of 27%. Furthermore, the state’s funding for preschool is only $3400 for a half-day slot.  This funding is insufficient to ensure high quality. So far, many school districts have supplemented these funds to create high-quality preschool slots. But this local supplementation is becoming increasingly difficult with state budget cuts to K-12 education.

Consolidation and coordination of early childhood programs with a child development and education focus can yield efficiencies and higher quality. But having a large state economic impact also depends on having enough funding for sufficient slots for the state’s children, and having enough funding that those child care and preschool slots can be high quality. Coordination does not cause money to grow on trees.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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