Preschools face uphill battle in northern Michigan

Jun 20, 2019

Researchers say if your kid goes to a good preschool, they'll be better off as an adult. A four-decade study from the HighScope Educational Research Foundation looked at the long-term effects preschool had on students. It found that kids who went to high-quality preschools grew up to have higher incomes and IQs than those who didn't. They also committed fewer crimes and had fewer teenage pregnancies.

But some local preschools are struggling to make ends meet, and families in northern Michigan can’t find programs that work for them.

(Pre)School's out for summer

On the last day of school at the Leelanau Children's Center in early June, teacher Aaron Ryder is monitoring recess. Ryder has taught at the LCC for 13 years and says most of his job is helping his students become part of a community.

"Every little conflict that they have ... that's our job as teachers is to help them go through that," Ryder says.

Aaron Ryder plays with a few of his students. He has worked at the Leelanau Children's Center for 13 years.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

During recess, he helps one girl talk to her friend and get a turn on the slide bar.

"Case in point right there," he says laughing.

During the school year, the LCC has 30 students in preschool, but it's struggling to stay open.

The cost of care

A year's tuition for a four-year-old at the LCC costs around $8,000. Program Director Molly Grovesner says that covers a quater of their costs.

"To pay for childcare is really expensive, as expensive as sending your child to college, but there's no FAFSA for preschoolers or toddlers," Grovesner says.

The rest of the budget for the LCC comes from government grants and private donations. That is a pretty common funding model for preschools, but the LCC isn't bringing in enough money. In the past five years, they cut classes from five days a week down to four and cut staff salary and benefits.

The Leelanau Children's Center in Leland had 30 preschool students this year.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

Not just a Michigan problem

Preschools like the Leelanau Children's Center are struggling across the country. Steve Barnett, executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, says it's harder for rural preschools to keep their doors open.

"There aren't as many facilities; it's more expensive to provide the transportation," Barnett says. "There often aren't organizations with the capacity to make this happen outside of the public schools."

To address this, Barnett says some states have tried Universal Preschool for all students regardless of income. States like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Maine have rolled the costs of preschool into their public school systems.

Preschool in public schools

In an interview with Detroit Public Television last year, then Gubernatorial Candidate Gretchen Whitmer supported the idea of Universal Preschool.

"We've got to do better by our children and that means ... having universal early childhood education so every child coming into kindergarten is ready to learn," Whitmer said.

But Universal Preschool hasn’t happened yet in Michigan. Whitmer did propose a 35 percent increase to the state’s preschool budget with the hope of Universal Preschool down the line. This has been done before. Former Gov. Rick Snyder passed a slightly lower increase in 2015 of $130 million more to Michigan’s preschools.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the idea of 'Universal Preschool' in Michigan.
Credit Zoe Clark / Michigan Radio

The money has made a difference locally, with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District opening 1,124 additional preschool slots for low-income families this year. But that's 143 short of the demand, and that shortage is typical most years.

Yvonne Donahue with the TBAISD says some of that money from the state isn't getting to communities that need it.

"Even though funding is higher than it was several years ago, we’ve seen some very specific decreases of opportunity in Leelanau County,” Donahue says.

Two preschools have closed in the county in the past year from lack of resources. Donahue says more money in the state budget for preschool doesn't address the needs of some parents. For example, there aren't buses to get kids to and from preschool and many state-certified preschools have to operate during school hours, which doesn't fit with the schedule of some working families. 

"There are a lot of different things that are available even from the federal government that we're not making use of here in Michigan," Gretchen Whitmer said to Detroit Public Television last year. "We could be giving tax breaks to families for childcare, and we're not."

The future of the Leelanau Children's Center is still up in the air. The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners may propose a millage to support preschools and childcare this summer.

This story was featured in Points North, you can find the full episode here.