Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Friday the city expects to be able to roll out universal pre-K for 4-year-olds by next fall, a development that could have a significant impact in a city where many children lack access to quality preschool programs. 

“I think we have support from the governor and the Senate Republicans and the House Republicans to fund for next fall universal pre-K for every 4-year-old in the city, if they can just pass a budget,” Duggan said. “I’m quite certain that we will be in it.”

This isn’t the first time that Duggan has promised a major expansion of services for Detroit’s youngest learners. The mayor insists the state should prioritize Detroit, where just 1% of kindergartners enter school ready to learn. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s current state budget didn’t single out Detroit to receive $63 million of federal child care funds, as Duggan had hoped.

Duggan made the comments during an early childhood summit that was held to recognize the work that has been accomplished since the launch of Hope Starts Here, an ambitious effort publicly launched in 2017 with $50 million from the Kresge Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (both Chalkbeat funders). The goal of this 10-year effort is to ensure that by 2027, Detroit is a city that puts its children first by taking steps such as increasing the number of children in quality preschool programs. 

The mayor hopes funding for the initiative will be included in this year’s budget through a supplemental appropriation, said Eli Savit, an adviser to Duggan. He declined to say where the money would come from, saying that the details would be worked out in the legislature.

“He’s got an agreement in principle,” Savit said. “Of course all of this is subject to the budget process, the details of which the legislature will presumably have to work out.”

It’s a big hurdle for the city, given how far apart the governor and Republican lawmakers are on some other key issues regarding the current budget, such as a funding increase for charter schools that Whitmer vetoed.

“I don’t want to speculate on what the mayor said or on what could happen,” said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, in a text message. “But I will emphasize the importance of both parties (Governor and Legislature) getting back to the table and working together to get a supplemental done to support programs that are important to Michigan residents like education, public safety, etc.”

If Duggan is successful, it will be a significant step in the city. There have long been concerns that too many children in the city enter school far behind academically, in part because they haven’t had access to strong child care and preschool programs. A 2017 study found 28,000 children in the city lack access to licensed child care providers from birth to age 5. The lack of preparation is particularly important because the state now requires schools to begin holding back struggling third-graders, beginning this school year.

With universal preschool, children across the city would have access to free preschool, regardless of income level.

Wendy Lewis Jackson, Detroit managing director for the Kresge Foundation, said Duggan has been consulting with Hope Starts Here on the universal pre-K plan. 

“We fully expect that the administration will be able to roll out universal pre-K by the timeline the mayor laid out,” she said.

“The goal really is to ensure that every child that needs access to a quality early childhood education will be able to find a program that best meets their needs.”

An artist’s rendering of a new early childhood education center that will be built on the campus of Marygrove College.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kresge Foundation

In the years since it began, $27 million in additional funding from foundations has been raised for the Hope Starts Here effort, and 16,000 more children in the city are in strong preschool programs, said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation.

“Yes, change is happening and it’s happening because all the partners in Hope Starts Here have come to the table strong and very committed to what our goal is and what our vision is,” Tabron said.

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, said that since the beginning of Hope Starts Here, $3 million has been invested in providing wraparound services for young children and $4 million has been invested in improving the physical condition of early childhood facilities.

There are a number of goals driving the Hope Starts Here initiative, and Duggan’s push for universal pre-K fits into the overall vision.

Duggan asked the crowd to imagine what it will be like to tell parents of young children that they will have access to quality full-day preschool programs.

“Let’s give them the advantage,” Duggan said.

It was unclear what the cost of the universal pre-K program would be, and if it would come in the form of a Head Start program or some other type of preschool program.

Duggan was among the speakers during a ceremonial groundbreaking that was held for a major initiative of the Hope Starts Here effort: a $15 million early childhood center that will be built on the campus of Marygrove College, part of a unique “cradle to careers” initiative that began this school year with the opening of a new high school run by the Detroit school district. The early childhood center, funded by Kresge, will be operated by Starfish Family Services, an early childhood provider.

The new building will open in 2021. It will serve about 145 children in 12 classrooms. The building will also include community gathering spaces, a library, and big windows that provide views of the Marygrove grounds, said architect Marlon Blackwell.

Some neighborhood children are already benefiting from programs operating in some classrooms in existing Marygrove buildings. Anisha Evans is among the neighborhood parents already taking advantage of early childhood programs at Marygrove.

Evans said she found the program after searching for “a home, a bond.”

“I’m just overly excited,” Evans said. “She can grow here,” she said of her daughter.

Summit speakers kept coming back to the word hope. Tabron noted that as a child growing up in the city, hope was a given for her. That’s not the case for many children growing up today, she said.

“All of us are bringing back hope as a given for all of the children in the community,” Tabron said. “That’s very important to our children today.”