Debbie Dingell and Michigan business leaders call for more focus on early childhood education
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"I'm worried about education in this state, period," Dingell said during the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Mackinac Policy Conference this week.
Dingell, wife of U.S. Rep. John Dingell, appeared in her role as president of D2 Strategies. She's also co-chair of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, a coalition of business leaders highlighting the importance of investing in early childhood programs.
Dingell is among 100 business leaders in Michigan calling for a greatly intensified state focus on early childhood education programs. The group's members made the announcement on the deck of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, where they urged fellow business leaders and entrepreneurs to commit to support the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The plan calls on state policymakers and local school officials to offer publicly funded preschool programs to all 4-year-olds who are eligible. Currently, Michigan has slots for only about half the eligible 4-year-olds, according to the coalition.
Dingell said that means about 38,000 4-year-olds are shut out of preschool every year in Michigan and that needs to change.
"When you've got 38,000 children that you can't put into a system when they're 4 years old, one they should be going into because they're are high risk, you've got a problem that needs to be addressed," Dingell told AnnArbor.com in an interview.
Additionally, the plan calls on state policymakers and local school officials to strengthen efforts to assure the healthy growth of children 3 and under.
The coalition says the first 1,000 days are critical to a child's brain development. Right from birth, they say, children must be raised by parents and other caregivers who have the support they need to be their children's first and best teachers.
To that end, the coalition supports expansion of evidence-based programs for children 3 and under and their families, particularly home visiting, for at-risk infants and toddlers.
"So it's preparing children early so they're not burdened and handicapped their entire K through 12 (school career)," Dingell said.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation hosted a panel discussion at the Mackinac Policy Conference that presented the business case for intensified preschool and other early childhood programs.
The Children's Leadership Council of Michigan argues its call to action is supported by solid evidence showing many of Michigan's children are not on a clear path to prosperity. It relayed the following statistics during the conference this week.
- 7 out of 10 fourth-graders are not proficient readers
- 1 out of 3 kindergartners is not fully prepared to learn when entering school
- For every $1 invested in high-quality preschool and evidenced-based early childhood programs, Michigan taxpayers save several dollars in reduced costs for welfare, criminal justice, grade repetition for students and other savings
The group argues the first key marker of student success is grade-school reading proficiency, and students become proficient readers if they enter kindergarten healthy and ready to learn.
Dingell said the underfunding of early childhood education and related programs is a problem that must be addressed nationally and locally, including in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
"We know we have young children in Washtenaw that need a helping hand," she said, pointing out some of the best early childhood education research in the nation is being done at the Ypsiltanit-based HighScope Educational Research Foundation.
HighScope, a nonprofit established in 1970, promotes the development of youth worldwide and supports educators and parents as they help children learn.
"It's a fabulous program," Dingell said. "I've taken people to that center. We had one of the best sessions I've ever had with the state legislators. It was Republican and Democrat, and people really learned it and they saw the brain development, and they really understood what we were talking about. And we do have a lot of families in Washtenaw that need help."
Business leaders who have signed the Michigan Early Childhood Business Plan include the executives of the Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing chambers of commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan, executives from a range of banking, accounting and financial institutions, as well as executives from utilities, publishing, legal professions, real estate, health care, manufacturing and other industries.
A flashing banner on the national Children's Leadership Council website reads: "Next year we'll spend $20 billion on the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy. What if this were invested in kids?"
"We've got to help kids get the skills they need to be prepared and ready," Dingell said. "So what does that mean? It means that young people in Ypsi, Ypsi Township and Ann Arbor may need some support to make sure they're getting the skills before they enter kindergarten."
Rebecca Nishanian, public policy director at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, said one of her agency's goals for the next decade is to make sure that children are entering school ready to learn, and the foundation for that is making sure they can read.
"Our work concentrates on family literacy," she said. "And that's where we see the most coming from any investment in dollars in early childhood education."
Dingell said she's been concerned as she's followed the debate around what might happen with Washtenaw County's Head Start program.
Washtenaw County will continue to fund to the program, which provides early childhood education for more than 500 children in low-income families in the county, through August 2013. But what happens after that remains somewhat uncertain.
After the 2012-13 school year, Head Start will transition to a new administrative agency chosen by the federal government through a request-for-proposals process.
Conan Smith, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said this week he's hopeful everything will work out for the families who rely on the program.
"Head Start in Washtenaw, I think, is actually on a fantastic path for growth," he said. "We've been working hand in glove with the WISD and the Great Start program they manage and I'm very hopeful they're going to turn in an application for taking over the Head Start program."
If the WISD is successful in its application and combines Head Start with Great Start, Smith said, more children will be served than under the county model.
Smith said it will be sad to see the program leave the county's control, but for the good of the kids in Washtenaw County, he considers it the right move.
"In Washtenaw County we have Success by 6, which is our coalition of early childhood educators," Smith added. "That group has always understood the importance of reading early, learning early, and the ramifications it has on your development as you move forward. And it's no surprise that we're an education-based community that has that value system."
Smith acknowledged more could be done, though.
"Even in Washtenaw, we're not reaching out to enough kids," he said. "There are hundreds of kids every year who aren't getting the kind of support and training they need to reach that critical level young enough that it makes a difference in their long-term education."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.