Whitmer's pre-K for all announcement was met with excitement and concern (2023)

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's announcement on WednesdayState of State addressThat she proposed free preschool for all 4-year-olds was cause for celebration for many parents and early childhood advocates – but a cause for concern for private childcare providers.

"There is ample evidence that connecting to quality, evidence-based programs has the power to make lasting improvements in children's lives," Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO ofBrilliant Detroit, said in an email. "Universal pre-K is a big part of that."

"Hopefully this will help ease the burden on families and also help them access the kind of quality care they want," he saidChristina Welland, Professor in the Schools of Education and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and Co-Director of theeducational policy initiative.

But the news was also met with a flood of questions and concerns from those who work in or study the industry. The owner of day-care centers in particular is concerned about what this means for her company.

"These kids are going to a free program instead of daycare, how am I going to manage the costs?" asked Vernisha colleague, owner of oneDay Care Center in Detroit, who said the announcement made her fear for her livelihood. "We're small businesses and we serve a community," the colleague said. "How will we stay open?"

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Whitmer's pre-K for all announcement was met with excitement and concern (1)

Whitmer's plan for Pre-K for everyone

Preschool for All is part of a three-pronged plan called "Reduce MI Costs," which also includes rolling back a pension tax for 2011 and expanding the tax credit for working families. According to Whitmer, Pre-K for all would save families an average of $10,000 a year while helping parents, and especially moms, keep working.

As a result, nearly 30,000 eligible young children in Detroit lack quality early education or child care optionsa community frameworkpublished in 2017 byHope starts here, an alliance of early childhood advocates in Detroit. This organization also reported that a lack of affordable childcare is among the top three barriers to participation in the workplace.

"This is a big step for young children, which I believe will be easier to spot once the Governor's Budget is released,"Denise Schmidt, Hope Starts Here's director of implementation said in an email to the Free Press. Smith, along with other experts, urged Whitmer to be thoughtful and include feedback from those whose work is devoted to children and families.

"By listening and working with those doing and supporting the work on the ground, responsive and equitable solutions to contemporary challenges are and will be developed," Smith wrote. "I can personally attest that this governor, her team and other state partners have been the most collaborative in my 30+ years of this work."

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Whitmer wants Michigan's Great Start to Readiness program to be expanded

The governor specifically referred to the expansion of theGreat startup readiness programand mentioned that the plan would "launch hundreds more preschool classrooms across Michigan and support thousands of jobs."

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

The income caps for participating in the program were lifted during the pandemic but later reset back to 250% of the federal poverty line, meaning a family of four would qualify for the free preschool year if they earned less than $70,000.

Whitmer's proposal removes this cap, making all 4-year-olds eligible for the program.

It is unclear how many children are affected. 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 organizationmothering justice, says a true count would be difficult because families could include part-time preschool in a patchwork of childcare workarounds. "Low-income people of color are disproportionately affected by the burden of childcare," she said.

State records showMore than $390 million has been allocated to the GSRP through Michigan's School Assistance Budget this school year.

More:Report shows low-income Michigan students hardest hit academically during pandemic

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Whitmer's pre-K for all announcement was met with excitement and concern (2)

Will justice be a focus of the new free preschool plan?

Parent Aisha Wells says her initial reaction to Whitmer's announcement was joy and excitement. Wells has a large family with many nieces and nephews and a sister who has a child and is now pregnant.

"It's a great start to helping people and allowing them to go to work and then having these kinds of programs so people don't have to struggle to find people to take care of their kids and the education get what you 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 lawmakers pass a bill providing universal preschool education, it will take a lot of effort to ensure that the children who most need tuition-free preschool are the ones who receive it.

"That needs to be a focus when implementing the extension to ensure that children who need it most are at the top of the list to receive these services," said Annette Sobocinski, executive director ofChild Care Network.

"It's really exciting that there is an opportunity for families of 4-year-olds to have access to quality early childhood education for free," said "But... it's a first step and more needs to be done."

Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent vonCommunity District of Detroit Public Schools, said that raising awareness in underserved communities about the expanded Pre-K opportunities and their social, emotional and academic benefits for children is crucial. "If that doesn't happen, the expansion will likely only benefit middle-class and wealthier families," he wrote in an email to the Free Press.

“With this in mind,” continued Vitti, “improving access alone will not solve the problem or ensure that the benefits of Pre-K are delivered to underserved communities. Providers of Pre-K and those receiving the additional funding for expansion must be high-quality providers using quality curriculum, trained educators, and learning assessment tools.”

This does not regulate early childhood education

The fault lines in our country's childcare system were suddenly recognized as urgent during the pandemic, as low-paid staff migrated to other industries, daycare centers closed, and women in particular left the workforce and kept their children at home.

Weiland believes policies like free Pre-K for all could play a role in solving the industry's wage and staffing problems.

"What this public investment can really do is fix this market failure where early childhood educators are not receiving the wages they are enjoying," Weiland said. "It really needs public investment to be able to pay early childhood educators fairly and provide them with a living wage."

But Weiland says strong federal action would also be needed 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 childcare 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 childcare pay."

Child advocates and early childhood education experts hoped that launching new programs would incorporate feedback from those most affected, including teachers and parents. "It will be important that families are involved in implementation and that their feedback on overall needs is heard," Eggleton said.

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Childcare owners fear this could be the nail in the coffin

For Detroit daycare owner Jawanna Patillo-Edwards, free preschool doesn't sound like something that will solve her problems.

"It doesn't help 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 ensure her children are at a first-grade level by the time their center graduates. She warned about other Pre-K programs that don't hire certified teachers.

Sending paying or even government-subsidized 4-year-olds to free programs sounds like a surefire way to undermine—perhaps jeopardize—their programs to her and her co-worker.

With higher student-to-teacher ratios, classrooms with older children often subsidize programs for toddlers and toddlers that cost more to operate. Will the proposed free preschool option make childcare even less affordable and accessible for younger children?

"It's a big challenge for us as a provider to take care of the registration... and continue to keep our doors open to serve our community," the colleague said. "I don't think it will work very well."

Jennifer Brookland reports on child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in association with Report for America.Make a tax-deductible contribution to support their workbit.ly/freepRFA.Reach them at jbrookland@freepress.com.

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