An influx of up to $65 million — a nearly 60 percent bump over current funding — will help pay the full cost of preschool for disadvantaged kids whose families make up to 250 percent of the poverty line. The income cutoff is roughly $39,000 for a parent with one child, $59,000 for a family of four.
The Republican governor, who is expected to sign the 2013-14 school spending plan soon, kicked off a conference of business and political leaders on Mackinac Island last week by saying he was "really proud" of the agreement to emphasize early learning in the budget.
"It's about time," he said. "Over the next two years we're going to get rid of the waiting list for kids in the state of Michigan to say they can have preschool now."
Snyder's preschool initiative is likely his biggest single budget success this year considering two other big-ticket plans — expanding Medicaid health insurance to more residents and raising taxes and fees for road maintenance — remain stalled in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Unlike with those proposals, additional pre-K funding had buy-in from pretty much every key constituency: Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, the business community and other groups. It was never a guarantee, though, because the budget also funds K-12 schools, universities and community colleges that have either seen funding cut or spending increases not keep up with inflation.
When Snyder submits his next budget in 2014, he is expected to ask for another $65 million increase. In the span of just two years, Michigan would go from enrolling 32,000 4-year-olds in the Great Start Readiness Program to 66,000. Under the bill awaiting Snyder's signature, slots would first go to the poorest children, with kids from better-earning families given slots if available.
"It's about continuing the investment so it's not just a one-time investment, but it's an annual investment that is increasing over time," said Carla Thompson, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a Battle Creek-based philanthropic organization that helps vulnerable children.
An influential factor behind Michigan's move is the business community. A year ago, a coalition of 100 business leaders called for doubling the number of underprivileged 4-year-olds receiving taxpayer-funded preschool.
While the workforce will grow more slowly in coming decades, the demand for well-trained workers will remain high, said Rob Grunewald, associate economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who has written about the economic return of educating 3- and 4-year-olds.
Kids getting a high-quality education before starting kindergarten are more likely to succeed academically, landing better jobs and making more money. They also are less likely to drop out of school, go on welfare and commit crimes — costs covered by the public.
"There's a growing awareness that if we are to make these investments today, we are going to benefit from that in the future," Grunewald said.
Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a report recommending pre-kindergarten programs for every poor student within 10 years. Just a few states make pre-K available to all 4-year-olds.
Advocates say once children get behind in school, it is very difficult for them to catch up.
"Public education is not about heroic interventions. It's about a teacher and 20 kids. They start out behind, they stay behind and then bad things starts happening," said Bob Harbison, who spoke about Oklahoma's experience with early childhood education at the Detroit Regional Chamber's recent policy conference. Oklahoma is seen as a national leader on the issue and enrolled 74 percent of 4-year-olds in a state pre-K program in the 2010-11 school year.
Michigan's public preschool program had enrolled 18 percent of 4-year-olds — ranking middle-of-the-pack nationally, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Many parents send their kids to private preschool or day care, or the children do not start school until kindergarten.
Snyder said a key marker of students' future success is their third-grade reading proficiency. Sixty-eight percent of all Michigan third-graders are proficient readers; 55 percent of third-graders qualifying for free or reduced lunch are proficient.
"That's a key driver and one of the most important single metrics for the success of someone's life," he said. "You have to have early childhood as part of that equation."