Whitmer’s pre-K for all announcement met with excitement, concerns

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement during Wednesday’s State of the State address that she was proposing free preschool for all 4-year-olds was cause for celebration for many parents and early childhood advocates — but a source of worry for private child care providers.

“There is much evidence that connection to quality, evidence-based programs have the power to permanently improve kids' lives,” Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit, said in an email. “Universal pre-K is a big part of this.”

“Hopefully, what this will help do is ease the burden on families and also help them to access the kind of high-quality care that they want,” said Christina Weiland, a professor in the University of Michigan schools of Education and Public Policy, and Co-director of the  Education Policy Initiative.

But the news was also met with a barrage of questions and concerns from those who work in the industry or study it. Those who own child care centers are especially worried about what this means for their businesses.

“These kids are going to a free program versus a day care center, how am I going to manage costs?” asked Vernisha Colleague, owner of a child care center in Detroit, who said the announcement made her fear for her livelihood. “We are small businesses, and we are serving a community,” Colleague said. “How will we remain open?”

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Makenzie Andrew, 4, sanitizes her hands in Aletha Darby’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) classroom at Growing Minds Learning Center on May 24, 2022 in Detroit, Mich. GSRP is a Michigan state-funded preschool program for four-year-old children who come from low income families. Darby is a teacher and the center’s founder.
Makenzie Andrew, 4, sanitizes her hands in Aletha Darby’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) classroom at Growing Minds Learning Center on May 24, 2022 in Detroit, Mich. GSRP is a Michigan state-funded preschool program for four-year-old children who come from low income families. Darby is a teacher and the center’s founder.

Whitmer’s plan for pre-K for all

Preschool for all is part of a three-pronged plan called “Lowering MI Costs,” which also includes rolling back a 2011 retirement tax and expanding the Working Families Tax Credit. Whitmer says pre-K for all would save families an average of $10,000 per year while helping parents, and especially mothers, continue working.

Nearly 30,000 eligible young children in Detroit have no high-quality early learning or child care options, according to a community framework published in 2017 by Hope Starts Here, an alliance of early childhood advocates in Detroit. That organization also reported that a lack of affordable child care is among the top three barriers to workplace participation.

“This is a big move for young children that I believe will be more readily seen once the governor’s budget is released,” Denise Smith, Hope Starts Here’s implementation director, said in an email to the Free Press. Smith, along with other experts, called on Whitmer to move thoughtfully and incorporate feedback from those whose work is devoted to children and families.

“It’s through listening and collaborating with those doing and supporting the work on the ground that responsive equitable solutions to current challenges are and will be developed,” Smith wrote. “I can personally attest to this governor, her team and other state partners being the most collaborative in my 30-plus years of doing this work.”

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Whitmer wants Michigan’s Great Start to Readiness program to expand

The governor specifically referenced expanding the Great Start Readiness Program and mentioned that the plan would “launch hundreds more preschool classrooms across Michigan, supporting thousands of jobs.”

The Great Start Readiness Program is Michigan’s state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds with risk factors for educational failure, administered largely through intermediate school districts. In the 2019-20 school year, it served more than 37,000 children, 95% of whom came from low-income families.

Income caps on participation in the program were lifted during the pandemic but later returned to 250% of the federal poverty level, meaning a family of four would qualify for the free preschool year if they make less than $70,000.

Whitmer’s proposal eliminates that ceiling, making all 4-year-olds eligible for the program.

It isn’t clear how many children this would affect. More than 71,000 Michigan 4-year-olds were not enrolled in preschool last year, but affordability wasn’t necessarily the reason. Danielle Atkinson, founding director of the national organization Mothering Justice, says a true count would be tough since families might include part-time preschool in a patchwork of child care workarounds. “People of color, low-income people are disproportionately affected by the burden of child care,” she said.

State records show more than $390 million was made available in the current school year for the GSRP through Michigan’s School Aid Budget.

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Will equity be a focus of the new plan for free preschool?

Parent Aisha Wells says her initial reaction to Whitmer’s announcement is joy and excitement. Wells has a large family with lots of nieces and nephews, and a sister who has an infant and is pregnant now.

“It's a great start to being able to service folks and allow for them to go to work, and then have these sorts of programs in place so people aren't scrambling to find people to watch their children and getting the education that they need,” she said. “So I think that's a beautiful thing.”

But Wells, whose son has disabilities that limit his ability to dress and feed himself and use the bathroom, said children like hers are routinely overlooked when it comes to early childhood education.

Other experts agree that should the Legislature pass a bill providing universal pre-K, it will take a lot of effort to ensure sure the children who need tuition-free preschool the most are still the ones to receive it.

“That needs to be a focus in how the expansion is implemented, is making sure that kids who are in most need are at the top of the list to get these services,” said Annette Sobocinski, executive director of Child Care Network.

“It is really exciting that there is an opportunity for families of 4-year-olds to be able to access high-quality early learning at no cost,” said “But … it's a first step and there's more to be done.”

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said building awareness in underserved communities about the expanded pre-K opportunity and its social, emotional and academic benefits to kids was key.  “If this does not occur, then the expansion will likely only benefit middle-class and wealthier families,” he wrote in an email to the Free Press.

“With that said,” Vitti continued, “improving access alone does not solve the problem or ensure the benefits of pre-K are realized for underserved communities. Providers of pre-K and those that will receive the additional funding for expansion need to be high-quality providers who use quality curriculum, trained educators, and learning assessment tools.”

This doesn’t fix early childhood education

The fault lines in our nation’s child care system were suddenly recognized as urgent during the pandemic, as poorly paid staff left for other industries, day care centers shuttered and women especially departed the workforce and kept their children home.

Weiland believes a policy like free pre-K for all could play a role in addressing the industry’s pay and staffing issues.

“What these public investments can really do is address these market failures in which early educators aren’t getting the wages that they enjoy,” said Weiland. “It really takes public investment to be able to pay early educators fairly and to offer them a living wage.”

But Weiland says strong federal action would also be necessary to truly solve early childhood education problems. “No state has managed to solve them all on its own,” she said.

Atkinson agreed that helping families access quality child care is just one leg of what she calls a three-legged stool. “We need to lower costs for families, we need to stabilize the industry and we need to invest in improving the pay for child care workers.”

Child advocates and early education experts hoped the launch of new programs would incorporate feedback from those most affected, including teachers and parents. “It will be important that families are included on how this all rolls out and that their feedback on overall needs are heard,” said Eggleton.

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Child care owners fear this could be the nail in the coffin

For Detroit day care owner Jawanna Patillo-Edwards, free preschool does not sound like anything that’s going to fix her problems.

“It’s not helping us, it doesn’t even really help the parents, because a lot of these pre-K programs? They don’t even teach,” said Patillo-Edwards, who tries to make sure her kids are at a first-grade level by the time they graduate from her center. She warned of other pre-K programs that don’t hire certified teachers.

Sending paying or even state-subsidized 4-year-olds into free programs sounds to her and Colleague like a surefire way to undermine — maybe even jeopardize — their programs.

With higher ratios of students to teachers, classrooms with older kids often subsidize infant and toddler programs, which cost more to run. Will the proposed free preschool option make care for younger kids even less affordable and accessible?

“It is very challenging for us as providers to worry about enrollment … and continuing to keep our doors open to serve our community,” said Colleague. “I don’t believe it’s gonna work out very well.”

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Reach her at jbrookland@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Parents, day care owners react to Michigan's universal pre-K plan