When Michigan’s leaders finally settled on a FY 2010 budget, it looked as if the cuts to the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) weren’t so bad, considering the dire condition of the economy there. The part of GSRP that’s formula-funded received the same $88.1 million allotted to it in FY 2009. The portion that is competitively funded was reduced from $15 million to $7.5 million. That’s a big hit, especially considering those funds had gone to Head Start and other providers serving kids most at risk of school failure. Still, total state pre-K allocations appeared to have dropped by about seven percent — less than many had feared.
Or did it? Upon closer inspection, one finds the budget enables districts to opt out of providing formula-funded GSRP altogether and apply the pre-K funds to shortfalls in K-12 education. That will be a temptation for many districts since they received a $292 per-pupil reduction in K-12 funding. Districts that never started pre-K classes this year because of funding uncertainty may be especially tempted to make up their K-12 cuts by sacrificing pre-K. School districts must apply to the state superintendent if they choose to take this route and they must prove they are using the GSRP funds to plan some form of school reform or consolidation. They are not required to implement the plan, simply create one. Districts have until December 1 to tell the Department of Education what they will be doing with their pre-K funds.
The decision by Michigan’s leaders to include this provision was intended to provide districts flexibility in difficult circumstances. In early education circles, however, it looks more like a “stealth incentive” to chip away at a respected state pre-K program that achieves 8 out of 10 benchmarks on NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist and serves 18 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. That’s because Michigan school districts have little latitude when it comes to making up funding shortfalls. As a result of the 1994 tax reforms, school funding is essentially state-controlled. Districts have had to make up funding cuts by cuts in spending or dipping into their fund balances when they have them. Thus, the new wrinkle regarding GSRP funds stands as a new addition to a very short list of options.
The uncertainty all of this creates for those charged with providing early care and education is enormous. Lindy Buch, Director of Michigan’s Office of Early Childhood Education and Family Services says that 20 long-standing agencies have already lost funding and cut programs. Getting a handle on the number of districts intending to apply for flexibility is proving difficult because of the time needed and cost of re-programming the state’s electronic grants system to include this information. Parents and others concerned about early education, should try to get at least a rough idea of district plans sooner rather than later in order to forestall “penny wise and pound foolish” attempts to cut pre-K at the local levels.