Resolve to Better Serve Michigan’s Youngest

January 8, 2014 – As gym membership purchases skyrocket and cookie sales take a hit, there’s nothing like the start to a new year to have folks think about all the hopes and wishes they have for a new year.  While I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of gal, I do have some hopes and wishes for young children in Michigan.  And 2014 is a year where much progress can be made with the help of your advocacy efforts as well as Michigan’s recently awarded Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.

At Michigan’s Children, we’ve long been advocates for the state’s young people who face the greatest barriers to opportunities that promote education and life success – children who are disproportionately disadvantaged like children of color and children from low-income families.  And we know the greatest avenue to success is to focus on prevention efforts to mitigate the disparities that emerge early and can persist over a lifetime.  As a state, we’ve clearly made great progress in this arena as evidenced by the significant expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program.  However, we know we have to start before preschool since disparities in cognitive development – which leads to the achievement gap – can emerge as young as nine months of age.  When we provide services for young children prenatally through age three coupled with a high quality preschool program like the Great Start Readiness Program, we can make significant strides towards ensuring all children are prepared for kindergarten while preventing the achievement gap.

As we ramp up preschool services for four-year-olds, Michigan must expand services to families with very young children prenatally through age three. Two key opportunities for bolstering services for this population are to strengthen the subsidized child care system and to expand evidence-based home visiting services.  In essence, ensuring that very young children have the best environments for their learning and development in the two places where they spend their days – at home and in child care while their parents work.  At the same time that the federal government has improved access to home visiting by increasing available funding, Michigan has bolstered the quality of home visiting services by mandating that publicly funded programs be evidence-based or promising programs.  Now, the state must also take responsibility for expanding access to these services since they still reach only a small fraction of the families who are eligible.

Additionally, our subsidized child care system continues to be one of the worst in the nation with woefully low reimbursement rates that are paid on an hourly basis.  And, with infant and toddler care being the most expensive, accessing high quality (read: 5-star rated programs in Great Start to Quality) is next to impossible with the current subsidy structure.  But opportunities to strengthen the child care system exist – especially with Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant award.  With our RTT-ELC grant, Michigan will focus on bolstering child care services to the most challenged families.  For infants and toddlers, a scholarship will be available to families in high needs communities, which will allow more young children access to the highest quality care that promotes healthy development and eliminates the school readiness gap.  While these scholarships are a great model that Michigan can replicate across the state, the RTT-ELC grant will only provide scholarships to a small fraction of the thousands of infants and toddlers who currently receive subsidized care.

More broadly, Michigan will use its RTT-ELC grant funding to provide incentives for more child care providers to participate in Great Start to Quality so that parents can be better informed about the quality of care they select for their children.  And, Michigan will make a concerted effort to support both licensed and unlicensed home-based child care providers to increase the quality of their care.  This is a significant step in the right direction since we know that many families – particularly families with very young children – opt for home-based care for many reasons including affordability, trust, cultural alignment, and convenience.  These opportunities will support parental choice so that parents can make the best possible decision about the care they purchase for their children.

While we have a ways to go to better serve Michigan’s youngest children, I am encouraged by the efforts we have already made and the plans we have laid out in our RTT-ELC grant.  While it would be overly optimistic to say that I hope the state’s “new year’s resolution” is to provide all young children prenatally through age five with the high quality services they need to be prepared for kindergarten, 2014 will prove to be a year where we can make great strides towards this goal.  Won’t you join us in these efforts?  The Governor will be unveiling his state budget proposal for the next fiscal year in February and shortly thereafter, the Legislature will be building the state’s budget.  Now is the time to talk to your legislators about how we can better support Michigan’s struggling children even before they reach preschool – by increasing access to evidence-based home visiting services and expanding and embedding opportunities available through the RTT-ELC into state policy.  2014 must be the year that we make significant strides so that all of Michigan’s most challenged young children can have access to opportunities that will help them thrive.

Learn more about Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant on the Michigan Office of Great Start website.

-Mina Hong