Governor makes Great Start a priority

Published 9:08 am Thursday, January 30, 2014

Efforts by local educators to give Cass County’s youngest a “great start” to their schooling may receive another boost from the state of Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder recently asked the state legislature to commit an additional $65 million to next year’s budget for the Great Start Readiness pre-school program, in an effort to eliminate waiting lists for such programs across the state. Last year, the governor received the same amount of money for the program, the largest such funding of any state in the country.

“It’s a great effort, and he has his priorities in the right place,” said Robert Colby, superintendent of the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District. “Increasing funding for pre-school programs gives tax payers the biggest bang for their buck, as it gets kids off to a good start when they start school.”

Lewis Cass ISD currently provides pre-school education to 200 Cass County children, with two full-time “Great Start” programs in Cassopolis and Dowagiac every year, along with one in Edwardsburg and Marcellus. The programs, which run slightly shorter than average school year, teach children basic skills to help prepare them for K-12 education, with organized play and social interaction.

“While the state has disinvested at the K-12 level in recent years, they have maintained their commitment to early childhood development,” Colby said. “That’s heartening to me.”

Colby hopes that the potential increase in state funding will be allocated toward increasing the number of children the program can support, he said.

“If we could have additional 50 slots funded, that would be wonderful,” he said.

While the superintendent said he is pleased by Snyder’s intentions, Colby is wary of the changes the state made last year to the requirements for children who qualify for the program, he said.

“If their intent really is to provide quality pre-school education to as many children as possible, they need to roll the criteria back to what it was,” Colby said.

One challenge to the ISD that additional state funding will not solve is with transportation. While children enrolled in the county’s “Great Start” can normally use their district’s regular transportation system, parents must find a way to pick up children who are enrolled in the half-day program.

While the 2015 state budget has yet to be finalized, Colby said he is optimistic of the program’s future.

“I think it’s a great commitment for our governor and our legislative body to our children’s future,” he said.