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More ABCs, fewer sacrifices: These Detroit parents know how Michigan lawmakers can improve early childhood education.

Oriana Powell, 30, listens to a presentation about early childhood education in Lansing. Powell joined dozens of parents from across the state in calling for increased access to early learning.
Oriana Powell, 30, listens to a presentation about early childhood education in Lansing. Powell joined dozens of parents from across the state in calling for increased access to early learning.
Koby Levin

Parents cheered when the a state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program, was expanded in Michigan in 2013, increasing the available seats by roughly 16,000.

But the expansion didn’t eliminate every challenge. The program ended at 3 p.m., for starters, making it difficult for parents who hold a full-time job to pick their children up.

“What kind of job are you going to get that will let you pick up your child at 3 p.m.? Parents are literally quitting their jobs to get child care,” Nkechy Ekere-Ezeh, CEO of the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, said.

With issues like this one in mind, dozens of parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids — where Ekere-Ezeh’s organization is based — traveled to Michigan’s state capital on Tuesday to make the case for the further expansion of the states’ early childhood education system. It was the first such event in at least a decade, according to the organizers.

Still unclear is whether the latest effort to expand early learning opportunities for Michigan children will succeed where past efforts have failed. The prospects seem hopeful following the election of Gretchen Whitmer, a governor who made pre-K a key part of her campaign platform.

“Every effort matters,” Heaster Wheeler, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State who previously worked for the early childhood partnership Hope Starts Here, told the Detroit contingent. “The fact that you were here today meant a whole bunch of legislators felt your presence. This is how they set their priorities.”

Many of the group’s priorities center on the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state funded pre-K program for children who are considered at risk of academic failure.

The program is only offered to four-year-olds, even though experts recognize that children need help at even earlier ages.

And parents with younger children can get state-subsidized child care only if they make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level — the second lowest cutoff for child care subsidies in the U.S.

Roughly two dozen parents traveled from Detroit in hopes of addressing those concerns. Oriana Powell, a 30-year-old mother from Detroit, said that in the end, she would have liked more face time with her legislators. Of more than a dozen state legislators with ties to Detroit, only a handful showed up.

“They’re not just going to give it to folks,” Powell said, referring to a laundry list of improvements, including improved access to childcare and the expansion of the state pre-K program. “It comes from parents making it very clear that we can’t continue to support anyone who’s not going to create the change that we need.”

Tuesday’s activism was only the start. Advocates say they are gearing up for a fight over early childhood education funding in the spring.

They may get a hand from business groups that support expanded access to child care because more parents are available to work when they don’t have to stay home caring for children.

Powell, who has a two-year-old daughter, will be watching closely.

She recently tired of leaving her two-year-old daughter at home all day to watch TV with her grandparents. But the higher-quality childcare program she found for her daughter came with higher costs.

After years of zeroing out every credit card bill, she’s found herself carrying a balance to deal with the $500 monthly child care bill.

“It’s been tight,” she said, “but it’s worth the sacrifice. Within a month, my daughter was coming home saying her ABCs.”

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