Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is broadening her vision for education in Michigan with proposals that would extend free public schooling for students beyond their K-12 years.
In her sixth State of the State address on Jan. 24, Whitmer pitched free preschool and free community college to Michiganders. She explained the universal education system as a way to make the state a national leader in education by improving student learning and better preparing students for life after graduation.
“This is a priority all parents share,” Whitmer said. “Whether you’re in a small town or big city, a Republican, Democrat, or independent, getting ahead or just getting by, you want your child to succeed.”
Chandra Madafferi, a teacher from Oakland County and president of the Michigan Education Association, the union that represents about 120,000 of the state’s educators, said in a statement that free preschool and community college would transform the state’s education system.
The Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, currently prioritizes children from low-income families.
“Expanding pre-K to all children regardless of family income will ensure that every child can start their educational journey on the proper footing and receive the foundational skills they need to become curious and eager lifelong learners,” Madafferi said.
In her State of the State address last year, Whitmer proposed a plan to create universal pre-K by 2027. This year, she said she wants to speed the timeline up by two years.Whitmer said the state has already made strides since last year in providing free pre-K to 5,600 more kids and saving their families $10,000 each year.
Whitmer also proposed making higher education more accessible by allowing high school seniors to attend a community college in Michigan tuition-free for two years upon graduation. Whitmer called it a transformational opportunity that would save Michigan residents pursuing an associate degree or skills certificate $4,000 on tuition.
Madafferi said community college prepares students for university or career training in the future, which helps create “the educated and skilled workforce Michigan needs to attract great-paying jobs and investments from businesses.”
The new program would reach more students than Michigan Reconnect, a state-funded scholarship that provides adults ages 25 and up with free in-district tuition at a Michigan community college or tribal college. Whitmer also worked with the Legislature’s Democratic majority last year to temporarily lower the Michigan Reconnect scholarship eligibility age to 21 for the current budget cycle.
The new proposals include few details beyond what Whitmer outlined in her address, leaving room for questions about how the Legislature plans on executing — and paying for — these programs.
Whitmer briefly mentioned she would like to see the programs funded in the state’s next budget. She will have an opportunity to further discuss ideas for how the Democratic majorities in the Legislature can implement them when she presents her budget recommendations before the House and Senate Appropriations committees on Feb. 7.
Doug Pratt, the MEA’s communications director, said the proposed programs are worthwhile investments for Michigan’s economic future, but sustaining them past the upcoming fiscal year will be critical.
Republican leaders in the Legislature condemned the extra state spending the proposed programs would bring and said the programs lack long-term stability. Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Porter Township, compared it to Whitmer’s free breakfast and lunch program, which was allocated $160 million for the 2023-2024 school year.
“What we saw in the speech tonight was really a long list of promises that only had short-term funding that were attached to it,” Nesbitt said.
Democratic leaders like Senate Education Committee Chair Dayna Polehanki remain optimistic.
“We have the political will, we have a plan, and it looks like it’s going to happen,” said Polehanki, who worked as a teacher for nearly two decades before becoming a lawmaker. “It’s gone from an aspirational goal back in the day when I was in the classroom to now it looks like something that’s tangible and real.”