The power of local coalitions: Kalamazoo’s progress on pre-K

For my speech on Monday February 23rd to the Kalamazoo Rotary Club, I looked more in-depth at state and local statistics on pre-K enrollment. Due to expanded state funding, the percentage of Michigan 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-K has increased from 21% in the 2012-13 school year to 33% in the 2014-15 school year. Kalamazoo County has done much better, with the county’s percentage of 4-year olds in state and local funded pre-K increasing from 22% in the 2012-13 school year to 52% in the 2014-15 school year. This is still below leading states such as Oklahoma, which has 74% of all four-year olds in state-funded pre-K, but is a lot of progress in two years.

Why has Kalamazoo County been more successful? I think the success has been due to a well-designed local coalition that has helped develop more quality pre-K programs and has more aggressively done outreach to make families more aware of affordable pre-K options. This coalition includes: KRESA (the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency, the intermediate school district), which administers Head Start and the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), the state pre-K program, and also supports the local Great Start Collaborative, which helps coordinate local efforts; Kalamazoo County Ready 4s, a local non-profit group that seeks to promote high-quality universal pre-K in Kalamazoo County through tuition scholarships, supplements to the state funds per pre-K slot, and training for local pre-K providers and teachers (I serve on the board of KC Ready 4s); a variety of public and private pre-K providers.

Because of this coalition, Kalamazoo County has been more aggressive in seeking the available state funds through the GSRP program and in being able to use those funds. In contrast, other communities around the state have been forced to return unused funds to the state. But in Kalamazoo County, with the training from KC Ready 4s and support from KRESA, more local pre-K providers are high-quality programs that are eligible for state funding. KC Ready4s provides tuition supplements to the GSRP funds to some pre-K providers, which makes these programs better able to participate in GSRP. With a coordinated effort from the entire coalition, including some door-to-door recruitment through the local community organizing group ISAAC in under-served neighborhoods, more parents are aware of their pre-K opportunities. Finally, KC Ready 4s directly provides sole financial support for pre-K for over 3% of all 4-year olds in Kalamazoo County who do not receive Head Start or GSRP funding.

I think this has broader lessons for pre-K around the country. Local implementation matters. Effective pre-K not only requires funding, but a local infrastructure to help train and develop providers and promote availability of the programs to parents. This seems to have been successfully done in other states, for example in North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four programs. And at least in Kalamazoo County, this local coalition seems to have been effective in multiplying the effects of the state pre-K funding.

There are still many challenges to pre-K’s future in Kalamazoo County and Michigan in general. These challenges include, perhaps most importantly, that the real inflation-adjusted funding per child for a half-day slot of $3,775 is still about 20% below the $4,518 funding per child (2015 dollars) for a half-day slot that Michigan provided in the 1990-2000 period (source: author’s calculations using the Consumer Price Index, and per-slot funding data from Michigan). As in other areas of Michigan education funding, Michigan’s struggling economy and deliberate political choices have led to nominal dollars for educational programs falling well behind inflation. The consequence of such low funding is that local pre-K programs must struggle to afford to pay pre-K teachers enough to consistently attract and retain high-quality teachers. Public school pre-K programs must choose to cross-subsidize pre-K with funds diverted from scarce K-12 allocations, and private pre-K programs must seek to raise supplementary funds from such sources as KC Ready 4s. This situation is not sustainable long-term without some more reliable sources of adequate pre-K funding.

This Michigan challenge is also a national challenge. Even as states begin to rebuild pre-K funding as the U.S. continues recovering from the Great Recession, a key issue is: are states as interested in providing the needed funding per pre-K slot to ensure quality as they are in simply expanding the number of pre-K slots? There is always the temptation to try to get large numbers for pre-K slots provided, with less concern about whether the funding is adequate to consistently support pre-K quality.  But what is ultimately important is access to quality pre-K programs, not simply access.

For some local news coverage of my February 23 speech, see the article by Julie Mack in the Kalamazoo Gazette. The complete speech and PowerPoint are at the Upjohn Institute website. The bulk of the speech and PowerPoint did NOT focus specifically on Kalamazoo. Rather, the speech provided some information about why the Head Start experiment does not show that pre-K effects fade in adulthood, and why pre-K education is a particularly attractive economic investment in skills development.

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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