I was recently interviewed by the local public radio station, WMUK, about the recent legislative agreement on the expansion of Michigan’s state-funded pre-K program, the Great Start Readiness Program. Governor Snyder’s proposal for expanded pre-K has now passed both houses of the legislature, and a conference committee has reconciled differences between the two bills. The next step will be legislative enactment of the conference committee bill and the Governor’s signature.
As I said in my interview, this bill represents significant progress for the state of Michigan on early childhood issues. The bill should increase the number of slots in the state’s pre-K program by about one-quarter. The percentage of the state’s four-year-olds in the state pre-K program should increase from about 19% to about 24%. In addition, the bill’s increase of the state funding per half-day pre-K slot from $3,400 to $3,625 represents the first increase in real state funding per slot in 10 years. This increase will help maintain program quality and encourage expansion of the program.
On the negative side, the $3,625 is still inadequate. A high-quality half-day slot probably costs around $4,500, to allow for adequate teacher salaries to attract quality teachers, and to pay for other needed costs. For most of GSRP’s history, its funding per slot, in today’s dollars, has been over $4,000.
Furthermore, Michigan is still well below leading states, such as Oklahoma, in the percentage of 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K. Oklahoma has 74% of all 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K, which is over triple the percentage of Michigan even after this expansion.
Finally, the new legislation attempts to increase the income targeting of the program through somewhat complicated administrative procedures that include segmenting applicant families by income and trying to prioritize lower-income families. But we know that pre-K has benefits for families from a wide variety of income levels. In addition, income-integrated pre-K has more positive peer effects. Given limited funding, one can understand the legislature’s interest in targeting the program on lower-income families. But this could be done in simpler ways, such as having a straightforward sliding-fee scale system that would target program resources while not promoting undue income segregation.
However, the legislation represents an important step forward for Michigan. It will be more effective in the long-term if this first step is followed by further reforms in later years. Such reforms should include a gradual expansion of the state program, increases in real per-slot funding, and a more moderate approach to income targeting that allows for income-integrated programs.