Making the Case for a $15 Million Increase in Early On State Support Next Year

(March 14, 2024) Kae Dubay’s son Lee couldn’t speak until he was 2 years old, the result of a speech and language delay, and the child also battled with a sensory processing disorder. Fortunately, Lee and his family received supportive home visits and services from Early On, Michigan’s early intervention system for infants and toddlers age 0-3 who have disabilities and developmental delays. That later led to Lee receiving at age three an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) through his local elementary school and continued special education services, which his mother credits to his success today as a happy, healthy teenager. Dubay shared her family’s story with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Education on Thursday in a presentation seeking a significant budget increase for Early On in the state’s upcoming FY25 budget. To reach more families and provide more timely, high quality services, Dubay and her fellow presenters urged lawmakers to increase Early On funding by $15 million, bringing the total to $37.3 million.

“That single connection is what eventually led us to the outside occupational therapy and social work services that he needed to excel and thrive. I would have never known how to navigate that system, or even known that it was available at that age, without Early On. Early On was the bridge for Lee to get the services that he needed and today he is a happy, healthy, academically, socially, and emotionally successful almost 13-year-old. I know, without a doubt, that he and my family wouldn’t be where we are today without Early On.”

In contrast, Dubay told lawmakers that her brother Ted struggled with a mental illness growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and her parents did not have access to early intervention, which led Ted down a very dark path. Tragically, he struggled in school, eventually dropped out, turned to drugs, struggled with homelessness, and faced a near-fatal heroin overdose. “The only difference is that Lee received early intervention and Ted did not,” she said. “Lee was set up to succeed when he entered school, and Ted was set-up to fail.”

Victoria Martinez, whose daughter was born with Down Syndrome, also shared her story with the lawmakers. Martinez said she began receiving support from Early On when her daughter was three months of age. She said that without Early On’s specialized services, she believes the gap between her daughter and her peers would have been significantly larger, preventing the girl from being fully included in kindergarten, and potentially feeling isolated and segregated throughout her K-12 years. “Due to her services in Early On, my daughter has been included in the general education classroom since attending early Head Start at age three,” Martinez said.

The parents were joined by others who offered expert testimony on the importance of fully funding Early On in Michigan: Christy Callahan, the President of the Early On Michigan Foundation; Teri Melchert, Occupational Therapist and Early On coordinator; and Dr. Nicole Hamp, a Developmental Behavioral pediatrician, medical director and owner of Arbor Autism in Ypsilanti,, and adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School. Michigan’s Children played a key role in coordinating the presentations.

The advocates said current Early On funding levels are inadequate, resulting in staffing shortages and fewer families being served. Since the pandemic, there has been a 26% increase in referrals of children. While advocates say the need justifies an increase of $15 million, the Governor’s FY25 budget recommendations includes only a $1 million increase.

Currently Early On programs statewide receive $22.3 million in state school aid funding, and $14.5 million in federal Part C of IDEA funding (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Some local programs attempt to fill holes in funding with limited local millage dollars that vary significantly county to county, resulting in inequitable service delivery for families.

Callahan explained that the Early On system in Michigan has been historically complicated by the fact that there are two separate early intervention system in Michigan – Early On Michigan and Michigan Mandatory Special Education. “Michigan was a pioneer in providing special education services to infants and toddlers 15 years before the federal (early intervention) mandate in 1986. Since we had this state special education system in place when Early On was created (in 1971), we ended up with two populations served under Early On.” This has led to inequitable support for families across the state, as Melchert shared, “the type and frequency of services that families receive is a function of resources and funding. Because we have not built one efficient system with equal access to funding streams, “Early On Only” children are often offered minimal services and service providers. For example, 65% of children who were Early On Only received less than one visit per month while 81% of children who were Early On and Special Education eligible received service weekly or twice a week.” The frequency of home visits that Early On Only children and families receive is often inadequate, as are the types of professionals that Early On Only children have access to.

Callahan explained that the inadequate frequency and types of services that Early On Only children receive is compounded with the reality that we are currently under-identifying children who meet eligibility criteria for Early On services: “Our identification rate is about 4% and reflects the number of infants and toddlers served, birth to 3, as a percentage of the population. As our state allocation for Early On has grown modestly, Michigan’s rate of identification is also steadily increasing. However, we are consistently below the national average. We know that the Michigan K-12 special education identification rate is about 13% and so there are likely many more children who would be eligible for services.” Since Early On programs across the state lack adequate funding to hire the number of federally qualified staff needed to provide quality, timely services, they don’t have the resources or incentive to do child find activities in their community, which means finding families who might be eligible for early intervention.

The point that these Early On champions drove home was clear – the demand for early intervention in Michigan is there – more children are eligible for our services than we can adequately serve, and increasing state funding for Early On is the answer. Dr. Hamp reiterated: “Today, we have a very specific ask – increase state Early On funding by $15 million this year, for a total of $37.3 million. In order to make Michigan the best state to have and raise a baby, we have to start at the beginning. Early intervention, offered between birth and three years of age, takes advantage of a time in a child’s development when there is unlimited promise and potential. When it comes to childhood development, you can’t start at the end, or even part way through, and work backwards. You can and you must start at the beginning. If you don’t, you are undercutting every other investment you are making in education this year. There is a lot of work to do, and this is a small start, but a significant one. An investment in Early On is an investment in our future.”

Watch their testimony to the House Appropriations subcommittee on School Aid and Education here and read their testimony here.

Make your voice heard: Contact your lawmakers and urge them to increase Early On’s funding. If you like, use this call script or email template.

Maddie Elliott is a policy associate specializing in early childhood for Michigan’s Children.