Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 4, 2012

Phil Power: School reform opportunity

BY PHIL POWER, Columnist

---- — For the first time in years, the door to far-reaching school reform in Michigan is gradually creaking open.

But will it stay there?

Over the past two weeks, Bridge, the Center for Michigan's Internet magazine, has been running a series on early childhood learning programs, something virtually all experts and educators call the essential step to later success. The big (but infuriating) takeaway:

There are 30,000 4-year-olds in Michigan who qualify for the state's early childhood program, Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) but are not enrolled.

The Bridge articles dubbed them "Michigan's forgotten 4-year-olds." They're not only forgotten, they're left out of a program that should enroll all children who want and need it.

The issue of pre-kindergarten learning programs is not just an insider policy debate among child development experts. It's the cutting edge of a reform program that could fundamentally reshape Michigan schools — for the better.

Listen to Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, speaking at a July meeting called by the governor to discuss school reform: "We all talk about early childhood, but we do nothing about it. (There is an) opportunity here and I don't think it's going to come along again "¦ It's a game-changer."

Without any doubt, a game-changer is exactly what's needed. For years, parents, employers and even students have complained about a system they see as under-performing, expensive and deeply resistant to change.

Many Michigan leaders have come to regard sharply increased early childhood programs as a realistic route to getting there. So The Center for Michigan decided to try to find some answers — and, working together with Public Sector Consultants, developed some options. They were supported in this by the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, a group of business leaders who argue that increasing early childhood learning programs assures, in the long run, a skilled and competitive workforce. In the shorter run, we believe that could mean a far more productive school system.

These options include:

n Fully converting Great Start to a full-day preschool program — because full-day preschool results in much better educational outcomes and makes for easier access for working families.

n Fund transportation for Great Start students. Many families without transportation have to see school buses pass by without picking up their kids.

n Invest modestly in outreach programs to enroll the hardest-to-reach at-risk children.

n Increase Great Start funding to add incentives to enrollment efforts by both public schools and private providers. Many Intermediate School District superintendents contend current GSRP funding costs them money.

n Open GSRP programs to private providers, especially when public schools can't manage to increase enrollment.

n Require clear metrics measuring success in kindergarten readiness and grade-level reading and math proficiency.

The best estimates are that such a program could result in a 40 percent increase in Great Start enrollment, from 23,200 to 32,400. That would result in 58,000 4-year-olds in Michigan being served by some form of formal public preschool.

Not enough, but that would be nearly half our state's total population of 4-year-olds.

Such a program is beginning to make Lansing heavyweights sit up and take notice. Flanagan wants to add $130 million a year to the $109 million the state currently spends on GSRP. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, has publicly endorsed a $140 million increase. Other lawmakers and senior officials in the Snyder Administration are making approving noises — though nowhere is there support for any tax increases to help pay for increased funding.

When you look at all of this, the case for increasing early childhood learning programs and revising the way the state funds investments in children is raising the possibility of the largest reform in our school system since Proposal A was passed in 1994.

Momentum is building. The door to reform is seems to be swinging open — but that's no guarantee it will stay there.

Opportunities like these are rare, precious and priceless.

And anybody with a stake in Michigan needs to join in.

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 e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.