Mayor cheers as Michigan’s governor recommends universal free pre-K in Detroit

Mayor Mike Duggan is one step closer to fulfilling a long-standing promise to bring free preschool to every 4-year-old in Detroit.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has backed that vision, recommending the state add $42 million to the state budget to expand prekindergarten offerings in Detroit and Flint, and a number of other cities.

It remains to be seen if the Republican-controlled legislature will go along with the plan. Duggan has claimed that he has already won support from Republicans, though that was news to some top members of the party.

“Great leadership from the Governor!” Duggan said in a statement. Whitmer’s proposal “ensures that every 4-year-old in Detroit would have access to early childhood education, which is proven to dramatically improve educational outcomes for children, especially those from lower income families.” 

There’s little question that a strong early childhood education system could make a big difference in Detroit, where few children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Numerous studies show that pre-K prepares kids — especially kids from low-income families — for kindergarten, setting them up to succeed in later grades.

Even if Whitmer’s proposal becomes law, however, there’s a long way to go. One recent study found that the city needs another 28,000 slots in early childhood classrooms, most of them for children ages zero to 3 who would not be included in Whitmer’s proposal.

Duggan promised late last year that Detroit would have free, universal pre-K for 4-year-olds by this fall, a promise that could come true if the state budget process moves more quickly this year than last — and if top Republicans agree to a preschool program aimed specifically at “high need areas.”

That’s a big “if.” The notion of an early childhood program that focuses on Michigan’s largest cities will likely be unpopular with some Republicans.

“We have a lot of families around the state that could use our help, not just in Detroit but in northern Michigan,” said Pamela Hornberger, Republican chair of the House committee on education. She noted that she is still reviewing Whitmer’s recommendations and hasn’t yet decided which parts she will or won’t support.

The proposed program, which would have the same rigorous quality standards as the state’s existing Great Start Readiness Program, would serve 1,920 additional children in Detroit, 440 in Flint, and 390 in Pontiac. Several districts in western and mid-Michigan would add smaller numbers of slots.

The program would be available to students who live in school districts where 75% of third-graders scored “not proficient” on the state English exam and 75% of all students are from low-income families.

Click here for a full list of qualifying districts.

Early childhood advocates have raised concerns that a major new influx of funding into Detroit could prompt a rush of parents into new programs, potentially destabilizing the early childhood system. It’s not clear what the state will do to prevent that. In a statement accompanying the budget, Whitmer’s staff wrote that local agencies “would be encouraged to work together to identify eligible children and coordinate service delivery.”

Whitmer’s recommendations also include an additional $35.5 million for Great Start Readiness,  a high-quality preschool program which already serves 38,000 4-year-olds statewide. The money would increase the per-pupil payment to GSRP programs from $7,250 to $8,336, bringing them on par with the state’s funding for K-12 schools.