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Cost, capacity remain biggest preschool barriers

By Erin Dietzer/The Holland Sentinel • Apr 7, 2018 at 6:00 PM

It’s a critical time for education in the state of Michigan.

Even as the state has invested more into education — like $80 million into improving third-grade reading — K-12 performance on state assessments continues to drop.

According to the latest report from the Education Trust-Midwest, Michigan third-graders are the lowest-performing students in the U.S. among peers, based on the state’s assessment. Michigan is one of only a few states in the country that has actually lost ground in third-grade reading in recent years. Fourth-grade scores have also dropped to 41st in the nation.

These drops are across the board, regardless of a student’s race or income.

An important piece in improving Michigan education is giving kids a good academic start in early childhood education. Research has shown that 85-90 percent of the brain is developed by the time a person is 5 years old, making learning during that time period critical.

“The architecture of the brain is the foundation of how we learn for the rest of our lives,” said Dr. Donna Lowry, director of Ready For School. “Quality learning experiences at home and in a formal setting like a preschool are essential to building those healthy, strong brains and help develop the skills that we need to be successful.”

Ready For School’s local data shows that children who go through a preschool program have a 17 percent advantage of school readiness compared to those who don’t. That advantage comes regardless of the child’s race, income level, native language or where they live in the community. State and national-level research shows quality preschool experience can help kids become more likely to succeed in school, graduate from high school, earn higher incomes and commit fewer crimes.

Two main barriers

However, two main barriers are keeping all children from having access to preschool: cost and capacity.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers child care affordable if it costs no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. However, according to the Economic Policy Institute, infant care for one child has an average annual cost of $9,882, which is 16.5 percent of Michigan’s median family income of $59,940. The average cost for 4-year-old care is $6,764, about 11 percent of that median income.

For lower-income families, it’s even worse. The United Way of Michigan estimates that for A.L.I.C.E. families — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — child care costs take up about 24 percent of the monthly budget.

It’s a strain for local families, too. Ready for School reports that 79 percent of local parents say cost is the leading obstacle to enrolling in early childhood programs to increase readiness.

The organization helps by offering 400-500 scholarships annually to families for tuition-based preschool. The organization also helps navigate parents through free or low-cost preschool options, like the Great Start Readiness Program that offers free preschool to 4-year-olds for income-qualified families.

However, even with this help, families run into the other main barrier: capacity.

Lowry said that every year in the Holland and Zeeland area, at least 500 eligible children with financial need are not receiving a free quality preschool experience because of a lack of capacity.

“We really are at a point where we are offering scholarships to those families who are coming to us for scholarships and meet the financial criteria, and then they can’t get a spot,” she said. “We’re up against that capacity.”

Lowry said part of the reason for the lack of room is that people are more aware now of the benefits of preschool. While supply has increased, it has not kept up with demand. And it’s not as simple for preschool providers to simply expand.

“Preschool is not a high-margin industry,” she said. “There’s not a lot of money in preschool. There’s a hesitation to expand capacity because there’s a worry of ‘next year, we won’t have this many kids. How will we pay for it?’”

It’s not an unfounded fear. During the Great Recession, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies conducted a survey and found that 45 percent of its providers experienced a decline in child care services provided at homes between the first and last half of 2008, due to parents being unable or unwilling to take on the expense of child care and states having to cut subsidies.

The state has increased funding to early childhood programs like Great Start Readiness since 2014, which has resulted in capacity expansion. Gov. Rick Snyder is also calling for an increase in state dollars allotted for child care subsidies in his 2019 budget proposals. Currently, Michigan reimbursement rates are one of the lowest in the nation, another detriment to preschool expansion.

Capacity problems aren’t just about money, either. Most preschool models are still a morning or afternoon model, Lowry said, which is not something that works for all families like parents who work second and third shift.

There’s also a shortage of early childhood teachers. Overall, fewer people in Michigan are pursuing teaching. The latest report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title II program, which supports teacher training and professional development, shows enrollment in teacher prep at the college level is falling in many states. An analysis by Bridge Magazine found the total number of Michigan college students studying to become a teacher is down more than 50 percent since 2008.

Lowry said the entire teaching workforce issue needs to be addressed, particularly compensation for early childhood workers. There also needs to be more innovation in preschool models, she said.

Kindergarten readiness

One way Ready For School is trying to be innovative is with the Start School Ready program, a four-week, half-day summer learning experience for soon-to-be kindergartners. The program has served more than 150 soon-to-be kindergartners since 2014, and last summer’s program served approximately 25 percent of Holland’s incoming kindergarten class.

Even four short weeks make a difference in a child’s kindergarten readiness. Progress in the program is measured by assessments given at the beginning and the end of the program that measure 23 skills. In last summer’s post-test, students’ ratings were higher than the pre-test ratings on all 23 items measured, with 21 out of 23 showing a statistically significant increase. Indicators tested range across a variety of necessary school skills like following directions of the teacher, following through with requests for classmates, being able to retell a story in their own words and increasing confidence to ask questions.

“Going from school calendar-based learning opportunities to year-round helps because teachers may be interested in working in the summer and it provides increased capacity, by using the current teaching infrastructure,” Lowry said.

Lowry also praised the work of area preschools for other innovative methods like one- to two-hour enhancement opportunities, afternoon enrichment and nature-based preschool that encourages families to think in an anytime-anywhere-learning mindset.

“Our community has taken several positive steps in the right direction to ensure more kids have access to high-quality early childhood education,” she said. “This will have long-term benefits, yet gaps remain.”

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