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Lawmakers have tough questions for Governor Snyder's plan to increase preschool funding

Capitol Building in Lansing, MI
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Capitol Building, Lansing, MI

Battle lines are beginning to emerge in the fight to increase preschool funding in Michigan.

State lawmakers held their first committee hearings this week on a proposal to increase funding for the state's preschool program by $65 million in next year's budget. Governor Snyder wants another increase the following year, which would more than double the state's current investment in preschool. 

During a joint House committee hearing today in Lansing, there was plenty of skepticism of the plan coming from members of Snyder's own party. 

The sharpest criticism came from Representative Martin Howrylak of Troy.  

"Are we trying to recreate the family unit here with all these programs?" Howylak asked during the hearing.

"No," said Susan Broman, who leads the Office of Great Start, the agency that oversees the state's preschool program. 

"Because it seems to me, the perverse incentive is to take the family and rip it apart," Howrylak said.

Howrylak drew some  disapproving looks from his colleagues over the question. 

But he wasn't the only one asking tough questions. 

Broman laid out the case for why the state should invest additional money in its Great Start Readiness Program, which offers free half-day preschool for kids from low-income homes. She said right now, about 29,000 four year olds are eligible for the program, but they can't get in because of a lack of funding. 

Broman also cited an evaluation of the program, showing that kids who went through GSRP's preschool program were less likely to have to repeat a grade later in school, and more likely to graduate than kids who didn't go through GSRP.  

"The proposal is an opportunity to scale up GSRP like we haven't historically," Broman said. "This will have a significant impact on the lives of 4-year-old children from this point forward."

But some Republican lawmakers questioned whether GSRP is targeted enough to the most needy families. To be eligible for free preschool as part of the program, families must make no more than three times national poverty threshold, which is under $24,000 per year for a family of four. 

"Do you feel 69 thousand dollars for a family of four is poor?" asked RepublicanTom McMillin of Rochester Hills.  

Broman didn't answer the question directly, but she said GSRP does make a distinction between families at the lower end of the eligibility threshold and those at the top. She said those near the top may choose not to enroll. 

A number of legislators seemed concerned that the state's preschool is not targeted enough at only poor families. Some seemed to believe that adding funding for the program would mean changing the eligibility requirements so that kids from more affluent families could get in. That's not part of the plan. 

And, there was frequent criticism of the large body of research showing the benefits of preschool. 

Michael Van Beek, of the free-market think tank the Mackinac Policy Center, offered his own view on that research. 

He criticized the evaluation of the evaluation of Michigan's preschool program by saying that it suffered from "selectivity bias," since the preschool sites in the evaluation volunteered to be evaluated. Van Beek said there also could have been differences among the parents who chose to enroll their kids in GSRP and the parents who didn't.

"It is plausible that the students whose parents enrolled them in Great Start would have graduated at a higher rate anyway, perhaps because their parents were more engaged in their education than the parents of their peers," Van Beek said. 

What Van Beek did not mention is that researchers at the Highscope Foundation, which conducted the evaluation, did attempt to control for many family characteristics, including income, parental education and whether the father lived at home. 

The hearing for House members was one of three committee meetings looking at preschool this week, but these are the first hearings taking up the question since the governor made his proposal last month. 

Representative Pete Lund, the Majority Whip for the House Republicans, said after the hearing that there's a lot of research left for legislators to do. 

"This is one I'm open to hearing more information on," he said of the preschool proposal. "I find the best questions are after you get a chance to read everything and think it over. When you call the experts and talk to them one on one is when you get better information."

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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