Jan 28, 2008

Cuts to preschool program avoided with supplemental budget bill

LANSING - The Michigan School Readiness Program (MSRP) that provides early childhood education to Michigan’s 4-year-old, at-risk public school students was saved from drastic cuts after the state House Appropriations Subcommittee approved an additional $18.7 million in funding for the program last week.

The committee unanimously reported House Bill 5531, the School Aid supplemental bill, out of committee, but it faces a difficult battle for passage after it passes the House and goes to the Republican-controlled state Senate. Many supporters of the MSRP fear much of the funding will be stripped out of the final version that passes the Senate.

“This is a victory, and this is the first step in the process,” said Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena, the chair of the committee. “We need to continue to keep this funded.”

The MSRP program is for four-year-old children who may be at risk of school failure, and each child must have at least two of the 25 identified risk factors to be eligible. Early childhood education has been a priority for the governor in the last couple of years. Research shows that children who are provided with a high-quality preschool experience show significant positive developmental differences when compared to children from the same backgrounds who did not attend a preschool program.

Because some of the larger and poorer school districts took up a larger portion of the slots this year and the economy in Michigan continues to falter, many of the state's 552 school districts saw a dramatic drop in funded slots. Compounding the problem was the fact that the state budget was passed on the deadline day of Oct. 1, 2007, after school had already started. Many school districts had already filled the slots they thought would be funded but many were not. That led to cuts in other programs and services to keep the kids who had already started school in the MSRP program.

Several individuals and groups testified before the subcommittee about the need to fully fund the school readiness program. Maria Sutka, the director of the Childhood Program Office at Wyandotte Public Schools, said the district requests funding for 250 slots but only received funding for 44.

“We have been underfunded for the last couple of years,” she said. “We are desperately trying to hang on to our program.”

Ronnie Rose, a teacher and parent of a child in the program, told the committee what the program has meant to her child.

“I know as a parent I have seen a huge difference in my child,” she said. “I am very emotional about this because it is so close to my heart.”

The School Aid Fund showed a budget surplus at the end of this year of $60.7 million, and $25 million of that was put back into the School Aid supplemental bill. However, that is still $96 million less than last year, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

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