By Teri Banas
LANSING – Top advocates for quality early childhood development cheered over the strong message sent last month by state Superintendent Mike Flanagan to a work group charged with reforming Michigan’s school funding system.
Flanagan had told the group that money for early learning and development along with a “guarantee” for a year or two of community college or its equivalent should be part of the fix for K-12 challenges in Michigan.
Advocates called the message a watershed moment for the early childhood movement in Michigan, putting it front and center of a new statewide initiative to improve Michigan’s educational system.
In discussions between Flanagan and Gov. Rick Snyder’s work group charged with rewriting the School Aid budget, “Superintendent Flanagan has been a clear and consistent advocate for directing more funding to early childhood education programs,” state Office of Great Start Director Susan Broman said.
“The concept that formal learning begins at kindergarten needs to be challenged and expanded to include quality early childhood programs,” Broman said last week. “This is one of the system changes for which he is advocating.”
She added: “Although Michigan’s achievement levels have been improving over the past three years, they still are far below where they need to be to have all students career- and college-ready. To have every child reading at grade level by third grade, we need to have them properly prepared when they first walk into a school.”
Gov. Snyder, who took office in 2010, has stressed cradle-to-career education in his education policy along with rewarding districts that show proficiency. But many Michigan districts continue to struggle financially and there are big worries among education, civic and business leaders over the caliber of the future workforce, and as a result, Michigan’s economic vitality.
Last week’s release of the Kids Count 2012 Data Book sounded the alarm once again in its analysis of state educational indicators, among other characteristics of child well-being. Compared to other states, Michigan ranked in the bottom half in regard to education, with 69 percent of fourth-graders scoring below proficiency.
In his remarks at the discussion on education financing reform, Flanagan also called for universal preschool, long touted by advocates as a means of closing the achievement gap and improving school performance especially for vulnerable children.
Indeed, the state Department of Education added empirical heft to those claims when it released the results of a longitudinal study of Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program in May. The 14-year study found that children who participated in the state-funded preschool program showed positive achievements on various measures, including teacher evaluations, grade promotion and standardized tests throughout their school career.
The Office of Great Start was created by Gov. Snyder a year ago at the urging of the public, nonprofit Early Childhood Investment Corporation, which today leads a collaborative effort of public and private interests to implement the state’s Great Start system, recognizing that government cannot do the work alone. The Investment Corporation is tasked with helping to maximize Michigan’s investment in high-quality early childhood development and assure solid returns on solid investments.
“Superintendent Flanagan is absolutely correct in setting the stage for what needs to happen next in refocusing educational funding efforts in this state,” said Investment Corporation CEO Judy Samelson. “Everyone – particularly our policy-makers and state lawmakers – should recognize that Michigan’s future economic vitality is at stake here.”
Gov. Snyder’s education funding work group is expected to influence a new Education Finance Act to replace the state’s School Aid Act, a complex 33-year-old blueprint for $11 billion in K-12 education spending.
The work is being led by Lansing attorney Richard McClellan. A final draft of a new spending bill is expected this fall.