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Whitmer’s $306 million preschool proposal includes more money to hire teachers

A group of children in a preschool program take a walk outside.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will propose spending $306 million to expand the state’s preschool program to include more 4-year-olds.

Erin Kirkland for Chalkbeat

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is asking lawmakers for $306 million to expand the state’s free preschool program, hire more teachers, and fund student transportation as part of her push for a universal pre-K system

The plan, which Whitmer will formally pitch Wednesday in her executive budget presentation, calls for $73 million to add up to 5,600 4-year-olds to the Great Start Readiness Program and allow more families to access the free preschool, according to an outline provided to Bridge Michigan by the governor’s office.

Additional spending would help providers address teacher shortages, boost transportation options, and shift to five-day preschool programs, which experts say are hurdles the state must overcome to make the program universal over the next four years, as Whitmer proposed in her recent State of the State address.

Enrollment in Michigan’s state sponsored preschool program is still recovering from pandemic-era declines — about 36,000 of 60,000 slots were filled last year. But Whitmer said last month she wants to ensure all 110,000 Michigan 4-year-olds can enroll by the time she leaves office in 2027.

Under the governor’s new budget proposal, 4-year-olds would qualify for Great Start Readiness if they live in a home with adults who earn 300 percent or less of the federal poverty level or about $79,000 for a family of four.

That would be up from the current 250 percent threshold, and in some instances, families who earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level could also qualify, according to Whitmer’s office. 

As Bridge Michigan reported last week, experts and educators say universal preschool is good for kids and the economy. A year of childcare now costs nearly $11,000 per year in Michigan, which experts say deters some parents from working.

But building an effective universal program would require hiring teachers to fill classrooms, boosting transportation funding, and expanding offerings to make the program more competitive with day care or developmental kindergarten, Superintendent Michael Rice previously told Bridge Michigan. 

Whitmer’s budget proposal begins to address each of those potential hurdles. 

It includes $50 million in one-time spending to help school districts hire new teachers and early childhood professionals. The governor also wants $30 million in ongoing funding to create a new tax credit of up to $30,000 for early childhood educators and child care professionals. 

“We need to make sure our early educators feel supported to take care of their children and families while they make so many sacrifices for ours,” Whitmer said in a statement, calling them “critical to empowering our youngest Michiganders and helping them get on track for long-term success.”

While Democrats now control both chambers of the Michigan Legislature, their slim majorities mean the governor will seek bipartisan support for her preschool proposals. GOP leaders have supported the Great Start Readiness in the past, but last month questioned the cost and benefits of making it universal. 

Whitmer’s plan includes $50 million in one-time funding for startup grants that her office said would help providers open up to 2,000 new classrooms, expanding the availability of preschool across the state. 

She is also asking lawmakers for $75 million in one-time funding to help preschool programs shift to a five-day weekly schedule instead of four days.

The plan also includes $18 million in ongoing funding to support transportation of preschool students, along with $10 million in one-time funding for an outreach program to encourage parental enrollment. 

Whitmer is set to unveil her full executive budget proposal Wednesday in an 11 a.m. presentation during a joint meeting of the House and Senate appropriations committee.

Return to Bridge Michigan for more coverage. 

Jonathan Oosting is a reporter for Bridge Michigan. You can reach him at joosting@bridgemi.com.

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