Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s free preschool program for low-income 4-year-olds, is nationally renowned for its high quality instruction.
But it has some gaps. Classes run only four days a week, forcing working parents to find child care on the fifth day.
Some advocates say Michigan officials could improve GSRP and strengthen the state’s entire early childhood education system by allowing licensed, home-based providers to offer the program. These providers use a range of funding sources and typically keep long hours.
So far, the answer is no. State leaders question whether home-based providers can meet GSRP’s quality standards, especially for teacher credentials and child-staff ratios.
“These particular benchmarks tend to be challenges for home-based providers trying to deliver state-funded preschool,” said Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education.
Some home-based providers disagree. More than 1,200 licensed, home-based child care programs in Michigan — about one-third of the total — have received a quality rating of at least 3 out of 5 stars from the state.
“Quality care isn’t just inside a center,” said Kai Young, a licensed provider who operates Squiggles & Giggles Child Care out of her home in Detroit.
Young has been in business for 29 years, and her program has a perfect 5-star rating from the state. She says she would welcome GSRP funding: Most of her students leave for GSRP programs when they turn 4.
GSRP was created in 1985 with a $1 million budget and fewer than 700 slots for students. It has become one of the state’s largest early childhood programs. The latest expansion came with help from federal COVID funds, which boosted this year’s budget 67% from last year, to $418 million. The program enrolled roughly 37,000 children in roughly 2,300 classrooms in 2019-20.
From the start, GSRP intentionally excluded home-based providers. It followed the classroom model of preschool, which is the basis for a wide swathe of early childhood research: 16 students per room, highly educated teachers, and carefully selected curriculum.
That approach worked, state officials say. Indeed, decades of research document the program’s positive effects on children’s development and readiness for kindergarten, and it regularly receives top marks for quality from national child development groups.
But critics argue that there are gaps in the current system that can’t be fixed unless the state adds some flexibility to GSRP. Many families send their 4-year-olds to a GSRP classroom four days a week, then to a home-based provider on the fifth day and during non-school hours.
Allowing home-based providers to offer GSRP programming would make things simpler for parents, said Denise Smith, implementation director of Hope Starts Here, a Detroit-based early childhood initiative. The change would also benefit home-based providers like Young, who lose many 4-year-olds to free GSRP programs and are left with younger children who are more expensive to care for.
(Hope Starts Here is supported by the Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Both also fund Chalkbeat.)
“It would stabilize the entire system, not just the GSRP programs that aren’t giving families everything that they need,” Smith said.
The changes advocates are pushing for in Michigan aren’t unprecedented. A recent national survey found that 10 states and several major cities allow home-based, licensed providers to participate in publicly funded preschool programs like GSRP. But in most cases, less than 1% of children in these programs were learning in a home-based setting. Exceptions include San Francisco’s public preschool program, which enrolled 18% of children in home-based programs, and Oregon Preschool Promise with 14%.
Smith acknowledges that the change wouldn’t be easy. GSRP providers need special training and extra administrative help to meet reporting requirements. Smith and other advocates propose to use federal COVID grant dollars to pilot a network of providers in Detroit, which could provide the support home-based providers need to offer GSRP.
State officials also warn that the cost of providing GSRP to smaller groups might be higher, something they say hasn’t been studied.
And then there’s the quality question. Without research to back up the quality of home-based preschool, officials say, it’s too early to invest in it.
“Only a handful of states… allow home-based providers to provide state-funded preschool and to date there is no effectiveness data on those to determine success,” Ackley said.
Some experts say it’s unfair to assume that the state would have to sacrifice quality to allow home-based providers to participate in GSRP.
Juliet Bromer, a research scientist at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on early childhood, said the shortage of research into home-based providers reflects cultural biases against child care work. Studies have generally focused on preschools that operate like K-12 classrooms — not home-based settings.
“We have these ideas of what quality is, and they’re all about a classroom with 16 kids,” she said. “And yet we know from all the research on early brain development that what is good for kids is those strong adult child relationships. And that can happen anywhere. That can happen in someone’s kitchen and in a school.”
Home-based programs are more likely to be used by children from low-income families, children of color, and children in rural areas. That’s one reason that federal policymakers have focused on these programs: Home-based care is explicitly included in the Biden administration’s proposed universal child care system.
“We know that children are already in these settings,” said Katie Hamm, a top early childhood official in the Biden administration, during an October webinar on including home-based child care in state preschool programs. “We want to expand, enhance, and improve early learning where it’s already happening, and that includes family child care.”
Experts say home-based child care programs are especially strong at building close relationships with children and families, which are a cornerstone of learning.
Neighborhood connections drew Tiara LaMar to Jill’s Creative Learning.
LaMar was working the counter at Sherwin Williams when Jill Bostic, the executive director of the program, came in to purchase some paint. As they talked through colors, LaMar mentioned that she was looking for child care for her son AJ. Bostic invited her to visit Jill’s Creative Learning, just a few miles away.
When LaMar stopped by, she immediately felt comfortable. In the small space — there’s room for no more than 12 children — it was clear that the adults and children knew each other well. Bostic has been in business for 25 years, and many of her students come to her as newborns and stay until they reach kindergarten.
“He comes home and says ‘Mom, we talked about this in daycare,’ and he wants to continue learning,” LaMar said. “They treat everybody there like family.”