Hold your bets on a preschool expansion in Detroit

Mayor Mike Duggan has been unequivocal: He has secured the necessary support from Republicans in Lansing to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in Detroit by this fall.

Republicans in Lansing aren’t so sure.

“There’ve been no decisions made,” said Phil Brown, senior budget advisor to Rep. Shane Hernandez, the Republican chair of the House appropriations committee. 

Early childhood advocates in Detroit are keeping a close eye on negotiations in Lansing, buoyed by Duggan’s optimism. But amid one of the fiercest budget battles in years, it’s unclear whether the mayor’s confidence is grounded in reality.

Duggan’s office has reached out to legislative leaders about funding for a preschool expansion, Brown said. If the money is going to be available by the fall, it would need to be included in a supplemental budget measure in coming weeks. While Brown didn’t rule out that possibility, he added, “those negotiations haven’t started.”

That’s a far cry from the situation Duggan outlined in comments last November.

“I think we have support from the governor and the Senate Republicans and the House Republicans to fund for next fall universal pre-K for every 4-year-old in the city, if they can just pass a budget,” he told a crowd of early childhood advocates in Detroit. “I’m quite certain that we will be in it.”

A Duggan advisor, Eli Savit, referred a reporter back to the mayor’s previous comments.

Duggan has talked for years about making free state preschool available to all Detroit 4-year-olds, but an earlier attempt to make it happen fell short.

To be sure, the historically contentious budget battle that is still playing out in Lansing has thrown plenty of people for a loop. And Duggan is not the only Detroiter holding out hope that, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP-controlled legislature continue to sort out their differences, new early childhood funds could materialize.

At stake are the futures of thousands of children in Detroit, and potentially across the state. High-quality preschool has been shown to improve the lives of young students, particularly those from low-income families. In Detroit, where the child poverty  rate exceeds 50%, many students are already academically behind their statewide peers upon entering kindergarten.

Studies have found that 28,000 Detroit children go without child care, including thousands from ages 3 to 5. Earlier this year, Whitmer proposed an $85 million funding boost for the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s highly-regarded free preschool system for 4-year-olds. That would likely have been enough to cover every 4-year-old in the city, but the funding wasn’t included in the final budget. 

Rep. Joe Tate, a Democrat who represents parts of Detroit’s lower east side, says he hasn’t given up hope that the funding will come through.

“It’s certainly a priority,” he said, saying he’d spoken to colleagues on both sides of the aisle about the issue.

Funding aside, key questions about the expansion Duggan is hoping for remain unanswered.

Would the state extend the existing Great Start Readiness Program, which has strict quality standards, or would the program operate differently? Is there a plan to ensure that new funding doesn’t disrupt existing operations?

And, crucially, would this money only go to Detroit?

“From the conversations that I’ve been having, there is obviously a special need for Detroit,” Tate said. “But there are also ways of broadening that as well to give broader access beyond Detroit.”

Any funding that was limited to deep-blue Detroit would likely face skepticism from Republican leaders, although the state’s existing program for low-income 4-year-olds has long enjoyed bipartisan support.

“I’d be willing to take a look at it with them,” said Pamela Hornberger, chair of the House education committee. But she added, “I don’t know how the funding happens for [a preschool expansion in Detroit] without making it happen for other kids across the state.”