Gov. Whitmer creates new Michigan agency for early childhood through post-secondary education

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a pink blazer and black shirt in front of a blue background.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created a new state agency that will focus on educational outcomes from pre-K through post-secondary learning. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established a new state agency Wednesday to focus on improving educational outcomes for students in preschool through postsecondary programs.

The Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential, or MiLEAP, will aim to help families access affordable child care, enroll kids in free pre-K, connect kids with before- and after-school activities, teach students about career options, and create paths for no-cost and affordable higher education in fields that are in demand. 

The governor’s executive order creating the new agency transfers the offices and functions of six existing state offices. The new department will work with the Michigan Department of Education and the elected State Board of Education, according to Whitmer’s office.

“For too long, we have thought of education as K-12, but we know that’s not good enough,” Whitmer said in a prepared statement. “I’m establishing MiLEAP today because we need to get every kid started early, in pre-K, so they succeed in kindergarten, have paths after graduation to get higher education tuition-free, and forge strong partnerships with our employers so they can get a good-paying, high-skill, and in-demand job.” 

Few specifics are known about how the department would operate, how it would be funded, and whether it would diminish the role of the Michigan Department of Education, whose leader is selected by the state board. One Republican member of the state board says she is exploring whether Whitmer’s move is legal, and two Democratic members expressed concern it would add a layer of bureaucracy. 

Key functions move out of Michigan Department of Education

The department will be made up of three offices: early childhood education, higher education, and education partnerships. It will be led by a state-appointed director.

“We will have more on the director selection in the future,” said Robert Leddy, director of communications for the governor’s office.

The executive order transfers the Office of Great Start, which serves the educational needs of children up to age 8, from the Michigan Department of Education to the new agency.

State Superintendent Michael Rice, who heads the MDE, said he was assured the transfer would carry on his department’s commitments, such as the state-funded preschool program.

The order also moves the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council and the Michigan PreK-12 Literacy Commission from the purview of the MDE to MiLEAP.

Functions of the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, and Labor and Economic Opportunity departments, the student aid office, and the Office of Rural Development will also move to the new agency.

Nikki Snyder, one of two Republicans on the eight-member State Board of Education,  said she learned of the new department Wednesday and was not contacted by the governor’s office about it. 

“The systems and structures providing these services are already in place and need more accountability,” said Snyder, who is running for U.S. Senate. “We don’t need more centralized government with less accountability.” 

Some Democrats on the board also expressed skepticism about the new agency.

“We must ensure that MiLEAP is not just another bureaucratic entity but a truly effective organization that addresses the longstanding issues in our education system,” said a joint statement from board member Mitchell Robinson and board President Pamela Pugh, who is also a U.S. Senate candidate. 

“Years of underfunding have had a detrimental impact on our schools, and while MiLEAP presents an opportunity to coordinate resources and create a clear vision, we must ensure that the necessary investments and equitable funding follow. Our children deserve access to quality education, regardless of their zip code or background,” they said. 

Mike Flanagan, who served as state superintendent from 2005 to 2015, said Whitmer’s move to create the Office of Higher Education within the new agency will likely lead to more funding for post-secondary initiatives.

“I think the governor did exactly the right thing on the college part,” he said. “If I were governor, I probably would have left early childhood where it was. But I trust her judgment.”

Previous Michigan governors have also tried to reorganize the way state agencies manage educational programs and responsibilities. Republican Gov. John Engler moved school assessments out of the MDE, and his successor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, reversed that decision. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder moved the school reform office out of the MDE only to reverse the decision two years later

Flanagan, who served after the changes to the department made by Engler, said the transfers made to Whitmer’s new agency are “very different.”

“This was thoughtfully done,” the former state superintendent said of the new changes to MDE. “The governor left the basic K-12 functions to the department. Engler just blew up the department.”

Rick Snyder also created the 21st Century Education Commission, which considered changing the way state education policymakers are selected. 

Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan which represents 123 Southeast Michigan school districts, said superintendents are waiting to see how the department will operate.

“We’re optimistic about this, and I think our superintendents just want to make sure they have a seat at the table as these things are being discussed and that it works as well as it can,” he said in an interview.

How will MiLEAP’s progress be measured?

MiLEAP’s overall goals will be to add capacity to early learning, to have every student in the state eventually earn a skill certificate or degree after high school, and to prioritize strategic state partnerships.

Whitmer has made access to early childhood education and increasing the number of people with postsecondary degrees or certificates two top priorities. 

The new department also touches on a years-long effort by advocates to boost after-school programming in the state.

“MiLEAP will get this done by establishing clear metrics for lifelong learning, collaborating with cross-sector leaders at the local, regional, and state level, and developing a shared action plan for everyone to work towards,” Leddy said.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents charter schools, said Whitmer’s decision Wednesday will be considered a success “if people recognize better outcomes” from the state programs being transferred to the new agency.

Matt Gillard, president and CEO of nonprofit Michigan’s Children, said his organization is optimistic about the change.

“I know we’ve struggled under our current system in some of these areas,” he said. “This signals a commitment from the Whitmer administration to rethinking things and becoming innovative and progressive in our approach to some of these issues.”

The cost of the department’s programming is built into the state budget, and the agency will work with the Legislature to fund operational needs, said Leddy. 

It will use state and federal funding, including $50 million in next year’s budget to provide before- and after-school programs, Leddy added.

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit education think tank, praised Whitmer’s focus on before- and after-school programming and called the creation of the agency a “big step in the right direction.”

Whitmer has set a goal of having 60% of working age adults with a college degree or skills certificate by 2030.

Asked whether the new structure would lead to more partisan education policy decisions, Glazer said “the advantages of having a department which is focused on improving education outcomes for all Michigan kids from birth to college to me outweighs the potential that maybe it gets caught up in the polarization we have everyplace else.”

Lawmakers recently approved budgets that expand eligibility for the state’s free community college program, Michigan Reconnect, and its free pre-K program, Great Start Readiness. 

Molly Macek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said she wants to see the new agency collect more data to measure if these programs are worthwhile and achieving their goals. 

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said he hopes creating a new office of higher education within the new department will increase awareness and use of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship.

The scholarship, created in 2022, provides funds for Michigan high school graduates to attend community colleges, independent nonprofit colleges or public four-year universities in Michigan. 

Hurley said the new department could lead to increased college affordability, college enrollment and “ultimately boost attainment levels.”

Hannah Dellinger is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 education. Contact Hannah at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

Isabel Lohman is a reporter for Bridge Michigan covering preK-12 and higher education. Contact Isabel at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

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