For nearly five years, the Center for Michigan has advocated for making high quality preschool education more accessible, and worked to educate state lawmakers about the benefits of early education for children, their families and their communities.
Specifically, the think tank has focused on reforming Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), which provides public preschool for children from low-income families.
“Michigan has had for a quarter century a public preschool program, but it was traditionally underfunded and did not serve nearly all of the kids who were eligible,” said John Bebow, Center for Michigan president and CEO. “That’s where we come in.”
In 2012, the center’s Bridge Magazine reporters produced a 17-part series, revealing 30,000 children were eligible for preschool, but could not enroll due to a lack of available programs and state investment. Bebow said the series chronicled the value of access to early childhood education, particularly for children from low-income households or otherwise deemed “at-risk.”
By 2013, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced plans to increase early child education enrollment with a $130 million investment over three years through Michigan’s Office of Great Start, which helps low-income families access early childhood education. In 2015, more than 21,000 children had been enrolled into the program as a result of the expansion.
“That’s an incredible investment in the potential of Michigan’s children,” said Bebow, adding that the investment could exceed more than half a billion dollars if a $54.9 billion budget proposal from Snyder receives approval from the state legislature in 2016. “I think Bridge’s contribution to the early childhood sphere was to lay out the urgency and the unmet need for the GSRP program.”
The center’s engagement team also conducted a poll on early childhood education in Michigan, hosting a series of community conversations – nonpartisan dialogue between residents from various communities throughout the state.
Their findings showed overwhelming support for early education reform, but they also pushed to ensure their public engagement represented the state’s diverse, underrepresented and minority voices were heard, Bebow said.
The center leveraged its advocacy group, the Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan, to elevate the issue. This coalition of business leaders campaigned around Michigan, educating residents and legislators about how the state’s economic future depended on improving preschool accessibility for vulnerable children.
Bebow also applauded the work of the Early Child Investment Corporation, which collaborated with the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Great Start and other child care advocates to identify and address gaps in the state’s early education system, and he praised educators and administrators for making adjustments to accommodate the influx of children into their preschool programs after the expansion.
“Credit goes to intermediate school districts and local schools that have accepted this challenge and really run with it,” said Bebow. “They have done heroic work to expand their program because they see the potential for this to improve learning down the line.”
Loice Maru and Tammy Arakelian are among those parents whose children benefited from the state’s expanded preschool programs.
Maru’s daughter, Pendo, speaks Swahili as a first language and she knew this could make learning difficult. Once enrolled in preschool, Maru was amazed by the stark transformation in her normally shy daughter, who began interacting with other children and expressing herself more clearly.
Arakelian witnessed a similar transformation in her son Grayson, who has dyslexia, a learning disability that affects the ability to recognize numbers and words. She noticed a dramatic change after he learned how to spell his name.
“The next thing he did was started naming other things that start with G,” Arakelian said about Grayson. “This world just opened up everything he could do.”
Bebow said strong public opinion, investigative journalism and support from business leaders were new tools for advocacy groups to leverage and critical to helping lawmakers grasp the importance of the issue.
“What this says about the policy environment is that leaders are listening,” he said. “They listen to very well-researched information, they listen to well-documented public mandate.”
With the Center for Michigan’s groundwork established, more children like Pendo and Grayson will be prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
“Public preschool is a game changer for those kids in order for them to reach third-grade math and reading proficiency,” Bebow said. “Change comes slowly, it’s very difficult, and in this case, there is tremendous change on behalf of Michigan’s children.”