Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 6, 2012

Phil Power: Spending on childhood ed pitiful

BY PHIL POWER, Columnist
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---- — One of the things that gets people maddest about the way government works is when we know something is true, and the authorities do the opposite, time and time again. This happens all too often, and is especially noticeable at back-to-school time.

Example One: It is beyond dispute that children learn the quickest and best from birth to age 5. When do we usually start spending a lot of public money on educating our children? At age 5, when they enter kindergarten.

Example Two: In Michigan, we do spend (very little) state money on pre-kindergarten programs. The Great Start Readiness Program, aimed at 4-year-olds from poor families, gets $109 million a year from the state. By contrast, we spend $13.4 billion on kindergarten through 12th grade in our public schools.

The amount we spend on crucial preschool programs amounts to little more than a rounding error. This is plainly absurd.

We all know that pre-kindergarten programs prepare young children to succeed once they get into K-12 school. Without them, most disadvantaged kids simply won't make the third grade reading benchmark that predicts future success. And recent research by the High Scope Educational Research Foundation shows kids who participate in the Great Start program are 20 per cent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don't.

So why do we spend so little on state funding for preschool programs? Many early childhood experts say Michigan has its funding formulas exactly backwards.

Michigan's Constitution guarantees free public education for every K-12 student in Michigan. For every child enrolled in school, the district gets a "foundation grant" (currently $6,966) from the state.

This system gives school districts an obvious incentive to maximize enrollment, since state money is guaranteed for every student the schools attract. But when it comes to preschool, it's just the reverse. There, the state arbitrarily declares how much money it has allocated to preschool programs (currently $109 million per year) and divvies it out in slots (at $3,400 each) to regional intermediate school districts and other Great Start providers.

So many dollars allocated, so many slots available. And when the slots are full, the remaining eligible kids go on a waiting list.

This is not a small number. Of all the Michigan 4-year-olds eligible by low family income for Great Start, something like 40 percent are never enrolled. That's tens of thousands of kids.

What that means is that there's a profound disconnect between what we know about the importance of preschool and what we actually do. The governor, the state school superintendent, school officials, teachers and learning experts all testify that preschool and other early childhood are fundamental keys to student success.

Yet in practice, the state's funding formula for preschool programs works to make this essential program a last priority.

Judy Samelson, the CEO of the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, agrees "It's about formulas, not meeting goals." The working of the formula for preschool practically guarantees there will be many thousands of eligible kids who never get enrolled.

Why do we treat kids under 5 so differently? I'd guess it goes back to 1979, when the School Aid Act was originally passed. At that time, most experts didn't pay much attention to how rapidly young kids learn and how essential preschool programs are. I can just hear policy-makers saying disdainfully, "They're just little kids."

But we now know better. And fortunately, an effort is now under way to rewrite the School Aid act, led by Richard McLellan, one of Lansing's smartest and most experienced insiders. Both Gov. Rick Snyder and School Superintendent Mike Flanagan have said that it makes no sense to take money meant to educate all our kids, young or old, and divide it arbitrarily into different pots.

In his special message on education last year, the governor called for a seamless P-20 (preschool through college) system for investing in human capital.

Early childhood programs available to all could be an absolute game-changer for Michigan kids — and for Michigan employers, who are complaining loudly about not being able to find skilled employees.

Putting our youngest students on the same funding formula basis as older ones would be a big step at eliminating this silly and damaging disconnect between what we know to be true — and what Michigan government does instead.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.