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Don't count out early education

(Originally published Feb. 3, 2011)

By Susan J. Demas

How's this for a contrast?

Last year, the Early Childhood Investment Corp. (ECIC) released a study showing that Michigan's budget saves a whopping $805 million because of pre-K programs.

And yet in fiscal 2010, Michigan was among the 17 states that put their programs on the chopping block. And only five states cut early education spending more percentage-wise than Michigan, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Michigan slashed its budget by 20 percent..

Now, as new Gov. Rick Snyder prepares his fiscal 2012 budget with a massive budet deficit looming, pre-K supporters are anxious about what lies ahead.

Snyder supports pre-K, often stressing on the campaign trail that we need to have a P-20 approach to education from preschool to post-graduate degree. But not all lawmakers are convinced we can afford to keep spending on the ECIC, a preschool clearing house, and Great Start, programs for children from birth to age 5 in moderate-income families.

"Early education has to be considered not as a 'nice-to' but has a 'have-to,'" said Bill Millett, founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based Scope Strategic Vision. He has given presentations on early education across Michigan and testified before legislative education committees.

"We need to get to the point when it stops being a conversation about whether early childhood (education) is a good investment," agreed Joan Blough, ECIC vice president. "We don't have that argument about K-12."

There's no shortage of studies showing that early ed pays dividends. The ECIC's research conducted by Minnesota-based Wilder Research shows it saves $221 million in remedial education for K-12. And there's $584 million less needed for juvenile justice, welfare and child care subsidies. Savings grow to $1.15 billion when factoring in an additional $347 million that doesn't impact the budget, such as in losses to victims of violent crimes.

Every dollar spent on early education generates between $1.80 and $17.07 back – with higher-quality programs that tend to cost more producing the best results, according to a 2005 study by the Rand Corp., a California think tank. The 40-year High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti of 123 students found the benefit of high-quality early ed was worth $17 for every $1 invested.

Advocates would like to separate early childhood programs from politics, but that's not the way budget issues work. Jack Kresnak, executive director for Voices for Michigan's Children, notes the "heated rhetoric" right now in politics makes the debate difficult.

"It's not throwing money at a problem," he said. "It's making investments that work."

Support Broadening

Increasingly, pre-K defenders aren't just the usual suspects in the education and human service fields. Business leaders get it, both in Michigan and across the country. Executives from Ernst & Young, CMS Energy and PNC Bank recently did a commercial for the ECIC, and national powerhouses like the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have endorsed an early education focus.

Why? It's an economic development issue. Businesses need a well-trained workforce – and the best and least expensive way to achieve that is through quality early education, many experts argue.

"Even if you hate kids, can't stand kids, as a business owner, a taxpayer, you have an incentive to move forward with early childhood education," Millett said. "The stakes are so high. It's about what kind of Michigan do you leave behind."

So what should Michigan do next? In tough economic times, the key is to get creative in financing.

There are several states getting it right. North Carolina is the granddaddy of early ed programs with its Smart Start, upon which Michigan's Great Start program was modeled. However, the state has made cuts in recent years.

The four hotbeds of early education activity right now are Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, which deployed "creative thinking, political sophistication and wise public-private investments" to start new programs for at-risk kids zero to 3, according to a 2009 paper, "Inspiring Innovation," by Zero to Three and the Ounce of Prevention Fund researchers.

"Ultimately, these four states serve as an example for others in how innovation can lead to systemic change for infants, toddlers and their families," the researchers wrote.

Michigan Programs

In recent years, Michigan has made big strides in early childhood education.

Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm always understood its importance and in 2005 initiated the ECIC, a public-private entity serving as a clearinghouse for state and local early childhood programs. Modeled after the Michigan Economic Development Corp., ECIC encompasses a variety of programs, including Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children across the country. Currently, ECIC is developing a childcare quality rating system.

Great Start is focused on at-risk kids zero to five whose families are in a slightly higher income bracket than those qualifying for Head Start. Great Start focuses on five areas: pediatric and family health, social and emotional health, childcare and early education, parenting leadership and family support.

The Great Start Readiness Program, which grew out of the Michigan School Readiness Program established in 1985, offers preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds whose families are below 300 percent of poverty. Great Start collaboratives plan and oversee programs at the local level. They have grown from seven in 2006 to 55 today.

Between Head Start and Great Start, 50 to 60 percent of at-risk Michigan children receive some early education, Blough said. But Michigan is far behind states that offer two years of quality preschool at ages 3 and 4, Kresnak said. Many kids, especially those at risk for poverty, are coming to kindergarten without being ready to learn.

Higher-income parents understand the value of high-quality preschool, Kresnak notes, and they're willing to pay for it. Blough also stressed that the early learning environment is in children's homes, especially during the crucial brain development years of zero to 3. She said that's why it's so important to support families with in-home visits during that time.

Funding Crisis

During the fiscal 2010 budget fight -- which resulted in the second brief state government shutdown in three years – early ed was almost a big casualty.

Lawmakers toyed with the idea of axing $103 million for preschool for 30,000 at-risk 4-year-olds statewide. They didn't go that far, but they did slash the overall early childhood budget by almost $100 million.

Michigan's fiscal 2010 overall early childhood budget was $379.2 million, according to the NCSL's report, "Early Care and Education State Budget Actions FY 2010." That was down from $475.6 million a year earlier. Funding comes from both federal and state sources. The bulk of Michigan's spending is in childcare through subsidies for parents and providers – not high-quality early education programs. In fiscal 2010, Michigan used $21.1 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, all for childcare.

Of all the programs, Michigan cut its child care budget the most -- 26 percent, according to the NCSL report. The fiscal 2010 budget was $239 million, down from $322 million in fiscal 2009. The Great Start program slid 7.3 percent, from $103 million in fiscal 2009 to $95.7 million in fiscal 2010.

Home visitation, which includes Strong Families, Safe Children, Zero to Three and the Nurse Family Partnership, was cut 17 percent. The programs saw $14.5 million in fiscal 2010, down from $19 million. Other programs, including infant and toddler services and public-private partnerships, saw a 2 percent cut. Those programs had a $30.3 million fiscal 2010 budget, down from $30.9 million.

Michigan is in the middle of the pack of states for 4-year-old preschool funding, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in its State Preschool Yearbook. In 2009, Michigan ranked 22nd, spending an average of $4,286 per child.

Many lawmakers, like former Senate Appropriations Chair Ron Jelinek (R-Three Oaks), said that Michigan had to preserve core funding for K-12 over early ed programs. The state spends about $12 billion on K-12.

Early childhood education advocates don't want to spark a war with school districts, many of which are key players in pre-K programs. But there has been some competition among all education levels in recent years for increasingly limited funding. No state has redlined higher education like Michigan in the last decade.

Kresnak acknowledges that K-12 "is fighting for survival," but he points out that districts' financial strain could be alleviated to some degree with better pre-K programs preparing students.

"We're at a critical moment for Michigan," he said. "We can grow our way out of the economic doldrums we're in if we invest in our children – especially young children."

Political Reality

It's impossible to divorce early ed from politics. The reality is that most advocates have had more success with Democratic than Republican governors in states that have recently expanded and initiated programs, like Kansas, North Carolina, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

That could end up hurting programs' chances for funding this year, when Republicans swept to power in most corners of the country. In politics, the tendency is to assume that the other party's favorite issues must be problematic and wasteful.

"Many states are working on early childhood education," Blough said, "but there are so many transitions with governors, it's hard to say what will happen."

Take the case of North Carolina's Smart Start, the baby of Democratic former Gov. Jim Hunt. It's been around 17 years and costs about $200 million per year, reaching 450,000 kids. It is integrated with Head Start.

Funding has decreased for more than four years, however, Millett said, largely because some of the political momentum was lost along the way. Millett argues that the program hasn't been "as effectively marketed as it could be." He said that stressing economic benefits might have more appeal, especially to Republicans.

"The message has been: Do it for the kids. It's the right thing to do," he said. "Now I agree with that, but in tougher economic times, that doesn't cut it. My position is to push it as an economic development tool and make that more up front."

He said he supports cutting taxes and rooting out government waste, but said political leaders have to be visionaries and look at the long-term benefits of early childhood programs for their state.

At the end of the day, pre-K is not a blue state vs. red state issue. The jury is still out on the fate of programs this year, especially in Michigan with a Republican governor who firmly backs early ed.

In Michigan, 19 percent of the eligible population of 4-year-olds are being served in high-quality preschool, according to NIEER's yearbook. That lags behind the national average of 25 percent. At the top of the list are states like Oklahoma, with 71 percent enrolled, Florida at 67 percent, Georgia at 53 percent and West Virginia at 51 percent.

"None of them are liberal taxers and spenders," notes Kresnak. "They see the benefit of investing in young children so they can have success when they get to school."

Smart States

Twenty states upped funding for early childhood programs in fiscal 2010, according to NCSL's report.

The state that increased early education spending the most was Arizona (91 percent), followed by South Dakota (46 percent), Alaska (40 percent), Idaho (30 percent), Delaware (29 percent) and North Dakota (29 percent).

But it's not just a matter of more money. It's about what kind of programs states are developing and how they're making them financially secure. And four states making a big splash are Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, which may provide some ideas for Michigan policymakers.

All four have programs that are flexible, allowing variation in how services are delivered and funded. Many link infant-toddler funding to pre-K funding, making the system comprehensive and lessening competition. And several states have turned to the private sector for input and funding, making programs less vulnerable to budgetary whims.


The Nebraska Early Childhood Education Endowment doesn't exactly roll of your tongue. So the program is simply known as "Sixpence," as in the children's nursery rhyme, "Sing a Song of Sixpence."

In 2006, lawmakers created an endowment for school readiness programs for at-risk zero- to 3-year-olds not eligible for early Head Start. The seed money was $40 million from state funding and $20 million raised privately. But the Legislature went further, passing a constitutional amendment that protects the endowment. The budget line item can't be cut.

"That's the beauty of it in an economy like ours when everyone is cutting," said Kathleen Feller, associate vice president of educational programs for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.

The foundation administers the endowment. Feller said this ensures public-private representation on the board. Sixpence also uses an intermediary organization for grants management. The Department of Education, Health and Human Services, funders, universities, foundations and early childhood groups were all involved in getting Sixpence off the ground.

There are 13 grants totaling $1.7 million, many serving rural areas. Sixpence reaches 500 children. The investment has taken a hit with the economy, so the public-private partnership hasn't been able to expand as planned. The goal is to do so in 2012.

Sixpence has a full evaluation component. Money has to go through a school district. Some are run by districts and others are by nonprofits. There are grants for home visits with a parent-education focus. Feller said they've seen the programs impact a lot of teen parents, who are more likely to stay in high school and graduate.

Sixpence wasn't modeled after any program, but uses best practices in early childhood education. The idea was to come up with a program that mirrored the people of Nebraska, Feller said. Stakeholders decided to do zero to 3, not 5, because of brain development research.

"You get the biggest bang for the buck," Feller said.


In the Sooner State, it's all about making sure childcare providers have the right training.

Under the Okalahoma Pilot Early Childhood Program established in 2006, all teachers in pilot programs are required to complete 48 hours of infant and toddler care training. If there are extra slots, the program opens them up to those not affiliated with the program. The program administers 12 grants.

The state contributes $10 million from the general fund. But the majority of funding – $15 million – comes from the private sector, which helps shield dollars from the budget ax. The program funding has been at the $25 million level since 2008, when it saw a 67 percent increase over 2007 funding.


Accountability is the watchword in Kansas with its Early Childhood Block Grant, established in 2009.

The Kansas Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund, which has five members appointed by the governor and four by legislative leadership, oversees the program. And officials are working with the University of Kansas' Institute for Educational Research and Public Service on developing and implementing an accountability framework. The block grant was very driven by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

At least 30 percent of the Block Grant is set aside for at-risk infants and toddlers. There are 10,080 kids served by the 14 grants in 2009. Block grants are open to nonprofits, school districts and government agencies for early child mental health services and home visitation with a parent-education focus.

All programs are locally designed. Officials won't fund three or four programs in one county, so that kids across the state can be reached, said Jane Weiler, early childhood director for the Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund.

"We had some acclaim, some recognition at the time we started it," she said.

The block grant's funding was $11 million for the first two years, but it will drop to $10 million for 2011. The revenue source is tobacco settlement funds, not taxpayer dollars. In the first year, the cabinet received $34 million in applications for an $11 million pot.

It's not clear what will happen in next year's budget, as Kansas has a new governor and Legislature, Weiler said.

"It's one of the newer line items in the tobacco settlement money, so it's often attacked," said Weiler. "… There's all sorts of holding our breath and waiting."

The block grant complements Smart Start Kansas, modeled after North Carolina's program, which is aimed at zero to 5. There are programs in 50 of Kansas' 105 counties. They must meet five goals: availability of childcare, affordability of childcare, quality of childcare and children's health and family focus. Weiler said there's been a significant improvement in the quality of care.

Funding is $8.3 million and the programs reach 43,000 kids.


In 1997, the Illinois State Board of Education created the Illinois Early Childhood Block Grant for kids zero to 5. There are 151 grants given to agencies across the state.

In recent years, the state has decided to develop more programs for kids zero to 3. The focus is on improving quality of care, like with the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Project that involves doctors, parents and teachers.

Infant-toddler services are 11 percent of the program's funds, but that will increase to not less than 20 percent by fiscal 2015, thanks to legislation passed in 2009. The budget was $380 million in fiscal 2009, entirely from state general revenue. Of that, $338 million was for Preschool For All for 3- and 4-year-olds, prioritizing at-risk kids, and $42 million was for the infant-toddler program.

Michigan's Future

Michigan is already starting to "reimagine" early education -- and education in general.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan and the Michigan Board of Education have initiated Project Reimagine, which strives to create a culture of achievement for the state's schools and students. One of the premises is that officials don't expect any funding increases for the next five to 10 years, so a creative approach to improving education is needed. And if there's a way to find efficiencies while doing so, all the better.

Early education is a key component, something Flanagan has stressed. The department is hoping to secure $50 million from the federal government to jumpstart initiatives in this area for school districts. But districts would have to figure out how to pay for programs themselves, which is no easy task in these fiscal times.

Advocates would like to see program expansions, of course. A Michigan State University study found that another 35,000 low-income 4-year-olds are eligible, but aren't served, by a Great Start Readiness Program or Head Start. Kresnak pegs the number at 40,000. But including these kids comes with a big price tag – about $300 million.

"We have to convince the Legislature and the new governor to do so, because it will save that much and more long after," Kresnak said.

Michigan could pursue private funding, like Oklahoma, to make some expansions. Certainly, a number of business leaders are on board with early childhood programs and might be an untapped resource.

Another option would be shifting more focus in existing funding to high-quality programs for kids zero to 3, like many states have. That's the most critical developmental time and has the biggest potential benefit, both in children's health and learning and cost savings.

But perhaps the most fundamental task at hand for advocates is educating Michiganders and policy-makers about the value of early childhood education. There's still a debate about its efficacy. Millett said that the business community should lead the charge, something that he said should resonate in Michigan.

"Workforce development doesn't start in community college, high school or middle school," Millett said. "You get a young child ready with imaginative, collaborative and articulate skills and he has a greater chance of success."

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