Flint, MI—Ahead of sharing her proposed budget tomorrow, Governor Gretchen Whitmer sat down at Educare Flint to hear feedback on her plan to ensure free preschool for Michigan’s 4-year-olds.

The plan, called “Pre-K for All,” will save families an average of $10,000 per year, Whitmer said during her State of the State address, a promise which gathered parents and educators said would be a good start for making ends meet during the Feb. 7, 2023 discussion.

“I stay home,” said Cheryl Stacey, who noted she has two 6-year-olds in kindergarten and a son soon to enter preschool. “I was a teacher before that, a secondary teacher, and when we crunched the numbers on how much it would cost to put [our kids] in childcare—as infants and then once we had our third one—I couldn’t afford it.”

The Pre-K for All plan targets the state’s Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), which currently favors low-income enrollees, or children in families with income under 250% of the Federal Poverty Level, which amounts to $75,000 for a family of four in 2023. 

Roundtable attendees agreed that early education itself has been beneficial to their children. But, some said they were lucky to have been able to enroll their child given current income guidelines, under which they may’ve been disqualified or deprioritized if not for other circumstances.

Jaquita Kelley, for example, told the governor that she had had her child prematurely, “which allowed me to have access to so many resources that, normally, my income would not allow me to access.”

Kelley added that as a board member at Flint’s International Academy, she works with parents who encounter similar roadblocks to supporting their children’s early education.

“We offer support and services where we transition and give parents different things,” she said. “But at that time, I also hear that ‘Oh, I don’t qualify for these programs. I don’t even want to hear it. Um, keep—just don’t even give it to me,’ when these are children who are falling between gaps.”

Jaquita Kelley (right), a parent and board member of the International Academy of Flint, listens to another attendee of a roundtable discussion with Governor Gretchen Whitmer at Educare in Flint, Mich. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. The governor was visiting to discuss her proposed ‘Pre-K for All’ plan. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

Additionally, attendees mentioned that having earlier access to childcare and education would help out more than the youngest members of families.

“I would say it will give our grandparents a break,” said local mom Quan’Tahnece Smith. She was met with a room full of nods and appreciative laughter in response.

Kelley followed up on Smith’s comment, saying that she had also leaned on her parents or grandparents for childcare help. But, she said, that’s not “sufficient.” Kelley noted that grandparents might not ask children to practice language or meet developmental benchmarks, which is why professional childcare and education is so important if it can be accessed.

While the consensus among those gathered at the Flint Educare facility was that “access” is a good thing, some pointed out the need to incentivize educators to support the nearly 75,000 more students who could join GSRP under the governor’s plan.

“One of the things in the budget that I would like to see included in some fashion is encouragement for teacher preparation programs,” said Kelli Webb, Head Start director for Genesee County. “Because this is a huge initiative, and I am completely on board, but I can’t say that I’m not concerned about the lack of staff that we’re already experiencing, as well as safe, licensable space.”

After the discussion concluded, Steve Tunnicliff, superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District—which is responsible for administering all GSRP programs across the county—said he agreed with Webb’s staffing concern.

“Like everybody else said, any additional investment in early childhood, we know from the research, is going to be a positive investment,” Tunnicliff told Flint Beat. “But, I think we’ve heard it across the state that the reality is we do need to prepare more people that have a heart for this work… to enter into this work. Because we can have as many slots as we want [for students], but we need people.”

When asked if her budget addressed the implementation concerns brought forward by Flint and Genesee educators, Whitmer said she understood more was needed.

The governor noted stipends in place for student teachers, but said further resources should be put toward making it more affordable to pursue a career in education, whether that means being a teacher or paraprofessional.

“That’s an important component of this [plan]. We can expand access, but it won’t be meaningful unless we’ve got great people in the classrooms with our students,” Whitmer said. “And that’s why we’ve got to confront it from both sides.”

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....