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Lt. Gov. promotes free, universal preschool during Grand Rapids visit

ALL — Even though she had the option of free preschool for her 4-year-old son, Grand Rapids resident Jennifer Kane said she opted to keep him at his current private preschool since he was thriving there.

“But it has been a struggle,” she said during a recent press conference about Michigan’s preschools, explaining that more affordable care for all parents no matter where their child attends would be very helpful.  “At the end of the day, it’s my child and I want him to have the best in education for him to move forward in life.”

Kane was just one of the people Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II visited during a recent tour of the The Learning Experience preschool, at 3392 E. Beltline Ave. NE, where he talked about the state’s goal of PreK for All — free, universal preschool for all 4-year-olds.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the statewide initiative in January 2023, with the Policy Equity Group hosting focus groups and listening sessions to develop a plan for implementation. In her 2024 State of the State address, Whitmer announced $159 million for the plan along with a three-year pilot program to provide free child care to child care workers and to boost state support for local child care providers by 10%. 

The state estimates that there are 118,000 4-year-olds in Michigan. The PreK for All goal is to have 75% of them, or 88,500, enrolled in free, universal preschool. According to MI School Data, for the 2022-2023 school year, 33,327 students were enrolled in the state’s free Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds.

Reducing the Financial Burden, Giving Peace of Mind

Access to free, quality preschool lessens the financial burden on parents and provides peace of mind, Gilchrist said. The governor’s office estimated that free preschool would save families about $10,000 a year. 

“They have the right to know that there’s an easy solution available to you regardless of where you are, regardless of your station or circumstances,” Gilchrist said. “That takes a tremendous burden off the parents not just financially but also just in terms of emotionally and thinking about the anxiety that comes with not knowing if your kid is going to have what they need in a classroom.”

Gilchrist, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Hilary Scholten, D-MI, and State Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, visited preschool classrooms, talking to staff and teachers about the programs they lead and their background in preschool education.

U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-MI, visits with a preschool student at The Learning Experience

Mollie Blixt, co-owner of The Learning Experience, said she and her partners operate seven facilities, with the East Beltline location opened about a year ago. The facilities serve children from about six weeks to 12 years old and offers a preschool program that has an inclusive, discovery-based curriculum. 

Blixt said The Learning Experience is looking to add a Great Start Readiness Program preschool to its East Beltline location offerings this fall. (Kent ISD operates GSRP in Kent County).The state’s GSRP is free to families who are at 300% of the poverty level (an income of $90,000 for a family of four). The biggest challenge has been the implementation process, she said.

Gilchrist said the state needs to add more child care programs to meet its goal. In 2022, the state launched Caring for MI Future, aimed at adding 1,000 new child care programs by the end of 2024. The program closed applications in November 2023 after establishing 1,089 new child care programs and helping 2,159 home-based providers expand their programs.

The $100 million invested into the Caring for MI Future came from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus package to help the country recover from COVID.

“Kent County is experiencing a crisis in terms of child care right now with close to 70,000 spots needed,” Scholten said, adding she plans to announce federal support of community-funded projects for early childhood education later this year.

As for the expansion of Michigan’s preschool program and other education budget proposals, Whitmer is looking to re-allocate $670 million in funds saved by paying off billions in debt to the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System to help fund the education budget.

The state has to have a budget ready by Oct. 1. School districts are required to have budgets in place by July 1. 

Gilchrist said the 2024 budget is currently in ongoing negotiations.

“The numbers are going to begin to materialize pretty soon,” he said. “We’re looking forward to, obviously, getting the budget done as soon as possible so that folks like here at The Learning Experience will be able to plan for this year and know what resources that will be available to you from the state of Michigan.”

Read more: 
Preschool programs preparing for ‘more staff, more classrooms, more building space’
‘We’ve tried to create a place to find joy’

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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