What do parents need? A more affordable life, Flint residents tell Whitmer

During roundtable, governor focuses on universal pre-K in upcoming state budget proposal

By: - February 7, 2023 3:23 pm

ov. Gretchen Whitmer and Ja’Nel Jamerson, executive director of Educare Flint, at a roundtable in Flint on Feb. 7, 2023 | Anna Gustafson

One by one, parents spoke up: They can’t afford to have more children.

Great-grandparents are caring for young children because working grandparents and parents aren’t making enough to foot bills for childcare or preschool.

Early childhood programs range from accessible and affordable — one parent paid $17 a week at Mott Community College’s Early Childhood Learning Center — to financially out of reach. 

Groceries are expensive.

Life, everyone agreed, is expensive.

In a room exploding with color at Educare Flint — a school that offers no-cost, full-day and year-long early education to hundreds of Flint children ages 0 to 5 — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listened Tuesday morning to a group of parents share their experiences with everything from childcare and preschool to parenting and access to education and jobs. 

One of a series of roundtables Whitmer is holding as she prepares to present her Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget on Wednesday, the discussion in a city where children have deeply struggled in school after drinking lead-poisoned water for years was held to inform Whitmer’s push for the state to fund a universal pre-K program for all 4-year-olds in Michigan, as well as other educational policy.

“It’s a forum to have a real conversation, and I appreciate your candor,” Whitmer told parents. 

Parents attend a roundtable with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Flint on Feb. 7, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

During the roundtable, Whitmer focused her own comments around her proposal to offer universal preschool for all 4-year-olds in Michigan — something which her office has said would save families an average of about $10,000 in annual childcare costs. These costs, among other financial burdens, are preventing parents from having more than one child and even keeping them from working full-time jobs or returning to school, those attending the roundtable said.

“We want to have more kids, but we aren’t going to have more kids because we can’t afford it,” Alyssa Bouchard told Whitmer.

Greater Flint Health Coalition President Jim Ananich, a Democratic former Senate minority leader, said his organization often finds that individuals reaching out to them for help aren’t able to take on full-time jobs because they can’t afford childcare.

“At the Greater Flint Health Coalition, we have a program where we help people get jobs in health care; one of the biggest challenges we deal with is access to child care,” Ananich said. 

If that financial barrier to childcare was removed, Ananich said, it would help to pave the way for people being able to work.

“As we propose this … we recognize it’s a huge value to families,” Whitmer said of universal preschool. “There’s a lot of reasons this is the right thing to do.”

The governor has long pushed for universal pre-K — something that a patchwork of states offer, from blue states like California and Vermont and red ones like Alabama and West Virginia. Whitmer first proposed universal preschool during her 2018 bid for governor and went on to work with a Republican-led Legislature to boost funding for what is currently a $452 million preschool initiative, the Great Start Readiness Program, that centers on lower-income 4-year-olds.

In her State of the State address in January, Whitmer announced she wants to make preschool free for all 4-year-olds in Michigan — a population of about 110,000 children — regardless of their families’ income. Whitmer spokesperson Stacey LaRouche said Tuesday that the governor’s office is not “quite ready to share the number” for the total cost of the universal pre-K program. 

The push for free preschool in Michigan is a move that comes in the wake of President Joe Biden attempting but failing to convince Congress to fund universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the U.S.

Parents attend a roundtable with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Flint on Feb. 7, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

“Preschool for all is something that’s long overdue,” Whitmer said of the universal pre-K initiative that studies have tied to improved behavior among children and a greater likelihood of attending college.

“We’re really focused on improving the quality of life for the people in our state but especially young kids in Michigan,” the governor added.

Ja’Nel Jamerson, the executive director of Educare Flint and the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative, called the universal pre-K proposal “a landmark move.” 

“For Michigan, this is an amazing step,” said Jamerson, who emceed Tuesday’s roundtable. 

If legislators ultimately agree to fund Whitmer’s universal preschool proposal, Jamerson said he wants the state government to ensure that Michigan’s diverse childcare field is not harmed.

“One thing I’ll be looking at is how do we make sure a move towards pre-K for all doesn’t eliminate opportunities” for daycare providers, “especially for minority-owned and woman-owned businesses,” Jamerson said. 

Whitmer agreed.

“I know everything we do has a ripple effect, and I want to make sure they’re positive ones,” the governor said.

Parents also urged the governor to expand educational funding for children younger than four. This, they said, could be especially life-changing for those who would like to return to full-time work or school but haven’t been able to because of childcare costs. Whitmer told the Advance on Monday that she plans to propose boosting spending on childcare in her upcoming budget proposal.

“You’ll see a real investment in young kids, across the spectrum of lifelong learning,” Whitmer said during the roundtable.

Sharonda Love-Wilson said she would love to see programs like Mott Community College’s Early Childhood Learning Center emulated around the state. When the mother of three adult sons and a young daughter returned to school, she was able to pay $17 a week for her daughter to attend the Early Childhood Learning Center in Flint.

Parents attend a roundtable with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Flint on Feb. 7, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

“Because of quality early child learning, she’s very articulate,” Love-Wilson said of her daughter. “When she has a gripe or complaint, she can express it without getting angry.”

Sue LaCota, the director of the Early Childhood Learning Center at Mott Community College, said they have focused their efforts around providing not only affordable education for students’ young children but on offering programs that help with parenting skills.

“We can support that parent all the way through getting their degree,” LaCota said. “ … Access to these services is paramount; it’s been very successful and we’ve been thrilled.”

After Whitmer presents her financial plan for the state on Wednesday, the governor urged the parents attending the roundtable to reach out to their representatives in the state House and Senate to advocate for what they’d like to see in the state’s final budget. 

“Don’t assume your state representative or state senator knows where you’re at; tell them,” Whitmer said. “ … The most powerful voice to a legislator is their constituents.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.