Commentary

More Money for Preschool Not the Answer

Proposal to boost great start funding doesn't add up

As part of her first budget proposal, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to shower more tax money on the state's preschool program. Yet this strategy offers very little hope of improving "early learning and literacy," as touted.

Whitmer's executive budget includes a call for an extra $84 million for the state's Great Start Readiness Program. GSRP is the state's program to subsidize preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds who are "educationally disadvantaged." The funding is distributed through the state's intermediate school districts. In 2018, ISDs used about 9 percent of GSRP funds for administrative and central office services.

Whitmer's proposal to increase GSRP funding is not a surprise based on her campaign's stated goal to make preschool in Michigan universal. At the current allocation of $7,250 per pupil, it would require an additional $582 million to subsidize preschool for all 4-year-olds. With Whitmer's newly proposed allocation of $8,500 per student, that price tag would exceed $720 million. Since a universal plan is not part of her current budget, Michigan residents can only speculate where that much money might come from.

For now, the governor's recommended 34 percent hike from the current year is intended both to raise the program allocation from $7,250 to $8,500 per preschooler and to raise the number of state-funded, full-time slots from 32,000 to 37,000. The actual number of students being served is somewhat higher than these figures, because some children are enrolled on a part-time basis.

To receive GSRP funding, a preschool student must come from a family at or below 250 percent of poverty level. That cutoff stands at nearly $65,000 for a family of four, or more than $75,000 for a family of five. The Michigan Department of Education reports that more than 67,000 children are already eligible, nearly 60 percent of all 4-year-olds statewide. Of those eligible, less than 56 percent currently participate in the program.

Many middle- and upper-class families already pay for preschool. Expanding eligibility to higher incomes will likely shift many of these families' child care cost burden onto taxpayers. Since much of the extra spending would pay for children already likely to go to the preschool of their parents’ choosing, there is no reason to expect academic benefits for these children.

Defenders of Michigan's preschool program can muster some evidence that looks favorable. In areas of the state where studies have been conducted, GSRP initially closes some of the gap by improving outcomes for more at-risk students, but much of the gains are lost in the summer before kindergarten. An older, lower-quality study of GSRP found that participating students were more likely to graduate from high school. However, the study itself acknowledged that participants' parents were "likely more motivated" to engage in their children's learning, which could explain some or all of those results.

Backers of more early childhood education funding can point to clearer, dramatic successes in the research on the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. But these older programs were intensively targeted on small groups of the neediest children. As the Brookings Institution's Russ Whitehurst has pointed out, it takes "prodigious leaps of faith" to apply those findings to today's attempts by states to provide preschool on a vast scale.

In fact, the best contemporary research on large-scale programs like Great Start is far from promising. Only two applicable gold-standard studies have been conducted, and neither bolsters the case for more government-funded preschool. The large-scale randomized study of the federal Head Start program found initial benefits for learning and behavior that faded out by the time students reach third grade. A more recent randomized control trial of Tennessee's state pre-K program actually found the initial gains turned to negative effects in the early elementary grades. Simply put, evidence is lacking that any initial academic benefits provided by preschool will actually stick.

It is a serious problem that less than half of third-graders in Michigan public schools are reading and writing at grade level. But expanding on the strategy of state-funded preschool through ISDs is an expensive and ineffective means of accomplishing that objective.